Back in May, Karsten Wade posted “microblog format/interaction is a crippled, radically transparent form of #IRC. Otherwise, seems to serve same purposes.” I don’t know if that’s his own conclusion or if he was quoting someone else, but I disagree either way. The other evening, I had a related discussion with a friend. Her take was that Twitter is a less-featureful version of Facebook status updates. I don’t believe that either, but it seems to highlight a problem with Twitter: it’s utility isn’t readily apparent.
Twitter easily supports one-to-one and one-to-many interaction. Many-to-many is possible, but requires some searching and/or client configuration. That makes it a rather poor replacement for IRC. IRC is also more real-time than Twitter is necessarily. Although Twitter is often used for real-time events, it doesn’t have to be. The big difference between IRC and Twitter is that IRC is self-contained. This is a point I made several times during the Mario Marathon, when people in chat felt they were being ignored. IRC can be very active, but no one outside the channel will notice. With Twitter, the message gets spread each time someone posts. If a topic begins to trend, that can pull in even more participants.
There’s a better case for saying Twitter is just like pulling the status updates out of Facebook. Several people I know post Facebook status updates with their Twitter accounts, so it seems reasonable. I’d agree that they are mostly the same, but there are a few differences. The primary difference is that Facebook more easily allows threaded discussion, whereas a tweet stands alone. Neither way is necessarily better; in certain circumstances one is preferable over another. There’s also the lack of passive support. In Facebook, you can “like” a status with impunity. On Twitter, to express support, you must re-tweet and therefore own the statement.
To me, there’s a clear use for Twitter. That’s not the case for many people, and until they can figure out a use, they simply won’t use it.