It seems everybody is talking about twitter. Does twitter matter? What is a tweet? The way I think about it, twitter is just another channel of communication. In the beginning the only channel was face to face. Then over time we had smoke signals, cave drawings, parchment, the Pony Express, teletype, ham radio, telephones, cell phones, email, instant messaging, mobile text messaging, and blogs. Now we have hundreds of social networks including Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace. Twitter is also a social network that is effectively a combination of instant messaging, sms text messaging, and blogging. When some “tweets” they are sending out a short (up to 140 characters) message that usually includes a link to a page somewhere on the web. Followers of the tweeter all receive the tweet. The tweet might contain a link to a profound story or it might just let followers know that “just got on the bus” or “having dinner at the pub”. (When I post this story to my blog I also send a tweet with a link to the posting). Numerous tools such as TweetDeck are springing up designed to enhance the twitter experience, tie it to Facebook, or organize your tweets in some way.
Many people may say “who cares” about twitter and tweets, but millions of people do care. They want to know what their friends are doing, not for the summer but right this minute. Millions of others give a priority to telling their friends are doing. News stations now use twitter to send out headlines. Why? To create another channel that might get people to visit a web page and see some advertising. There are many motives but the bottom line is that twitter is another channel. Some people are content to visit a favorite blog or web site once a month or when the spirit moves them. Others want to be notified by email when there is a new story posted. Others want to know instantly. Each to their own. The big picture is that social networks are evolving to the point that the entire World Wide Web is likely going to become the Social Web.
A social network is a structure consisting of nodes (people or organizations) that have a common interest or increasingly a dependency. The tie that binds us can be one or more of many things: values, visions, ideas, financial exchange, friendship, kinship, food likes or dislikes, buy or sell trading, links to each other’s blogs, epidemiology, or airline routes. The resulting ontologies are very complex. Research in a number of academic fields has shown that social networks operate on many levels, from families to countries. The use of the networks is beginning to be a key tool in collaboration to solve problems, how people achieve their goals and even how organizations are run.
In its simplest form, a social network is a map of all the relevant ties between the nodes (people). One of the first social networks was Linkedin and I have been a member of it from nearly the beginning. Hardly a day goes by without an invitation to join some network — often from a person I never heard of. To gain the real “network effect” I recommend being selective in dealing with these invitations. Otherwise you end up connected to everybody which is as valuable as being connected to nobody. There are many people who are looking for people to send press releases to or to throw you into a recruitment pool or just be able to say they “know” someone or is their “friend” because they saw your name in the paper or saw you at a conference. The real power is not in the numbers per se but to really know someone who knows someone who knows someone and to have the credibility with the person you know such that they are willing to help you to connect to someone else. I have 225 trusted friends and colleagues in my Linkedin network. Two degrees away — friends of friends; each connected to one of my connections — there are more than 86,000 people. Three degrees away — members who can be reached through a friend and one of their friends — is 6,137,500 people. If you are discerning about it you can develop considerable social capital.
There are many issues in the social networking space. One of them is that there are so many networks. If you take a look at the end of this story you will see
— and if you like the story and click, you can send an email link to the story to friends. A second choice is that you can post the story to your own blog. Perhaps most important is the third choice which is to post the story at one or more of your favorite social networks.
How many social networks should you belong to? Certainly not forty. I belong to Linkedin, Facebook, and twitter. Three is enough for me. But is it? There are many niche networks — such as A Small World — that will be of interest to many. But do you want to create a profile of your personal information at each of the networks you choose? And keep them up to date? And tell your connected friends what you are doing and exactly where you are (latitude and longitude) and what music you like or even what song you are listening to at the moment? To me the glass is half full. I am hopeful that protocols will emerge such as OAuth, OpenID, and OpenSocial that will level the playing field. We will be able to use one single “sign-on” for all our web sites and create *one* profile and have control over which networks and which parts of the profile it appear in. For example, it would be nice to create a comprehensive profile that is encrypted and totally under the user’s control. You may choose to have your favorite songs be accessible through Facebook but not your medical records from Google Health and your Google Health electronic medical record to be accessible to your primary care physician and your hospital but nobody else. The application you create for your consulting business or a new game you created could be available through *all* the social networks.
Social networking is the next turn of the crank of the Internet. By combining networks, such as a mobile phone networks, mobile payment systems, the Internet and a network of people all sharing a common cause, a viral effect can take place resulting in a lot of money or assistance flowing to the need — political, emergency response or (hopefully) humanitarian. There are surely many security and privacy issues with social networking but I am optimistic they will be solved.
Meanwhile, University of Wisconsin-Madison biomedical engineering doctoral student Adam Wilson recently posted a status update on Twitter by just thinking about it. The target is people who cannot move but have normal brain function. The brain-based twitter communication system represents one of the first uses of brain-computer interface techniques in conjunction with the Internet.