The Opaque Value Problem (or, Why do people use Twitter?)

John Dvorak, the famous Mac linkbaiter, who let everyone in on his linkbaiting strategy a while back, can’t understand why anyone would care a whit about Twitter:

“I cannot understand why anyone would want to do this, or why anyone would want to read these posts.

In the past, I would just go off on the subject, as I did with blogging and podcasting when they first appeared. Since then, I’ve become a blogger and a podcaster and have been rebuked for my earlier opinions. On the Internet, they never forget.

So I’m thinking that I should be more analytical in a positive way. I say this even though this is one fad I cannot imagine wasting my time on.

At the risk of linking to Dvorak’s piece, this is actually a widely-held view of not only Twitter, but of much of social software in general. It is difficult to understand why others would use social apps…what value is all that chattering?

John Dvorak, the famous Mac linkbaiter, who let everyone in on his linkbaiting strategy a while back, can’t understand why anyone would care a whit about Twitter:

“I cannot understand why anyone would want to do this, or why anyone would want to read these posts.

In the past, I would just go off on the subject, as I did with blogging and podcasting when they first appeared. Since then, I’ve become a blogger and a podcaster and have been rebuked for my earlier opinions. On the Internet, they never forget.

So I’m thinking that I should be more analytical in a positive way. I say this even though this is one fad I cannot imagine wasting my time on.

At the risk of linking to Dvorak’s piece, this is actually a widely-held view of not only Twitter, but of much of social software in general. It is difficult to understand why others would use social apps…what value is all that chattering?

Indeed, Lance Ulanoff, Dvorak’s colleague at PCMag, writes in a similar vein:

“Twitter’s demise will certainly come before we hit 2011. It’s the perfect example of Internet flash paper, and I suspect it will shine as brightly and briefly as this favorite magician’s gimmick. I’m singling out the site, which revolves entirely around people’s random notes about what they’re doing and thinking at any given moment”

Let’s ignore for a second that these guys make their living by consistently making wrong predictions, and delve deeper into what is actually a very salient point about social software.

Value is Person Specific

The fact that we don’t understand what value others get from social web apps is part of the paradigm of social software. The key is that each person has their own social lives, their own social circle, and thus their own social values. What is important to their social life will almost certainly be unimportant to us because we have our own to worry about.

Think of it this way. Each person has their own social network. Chances are that social network overlaps very little with yours. If, say, that person wanted recommendations for watching a movie, they might turn to their social network, which is made up of their family, friends, and colleagues. They would ask these people, the people they know and trust, what movies they recommend.

Now, would you turn to the same social network for movie recommendations? Of course not. You trust the people you know…your social network, and so any of the chatter from their social network has no value for you. It’s meaningless chatter. Just like most people’s Tweets on Twitter.

The Opaque Value Problem

In a larger sense, this opaque value problem affects most social software. Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, most social software is built around providing personalized, socially-focused conversation. It’s person-centered and as a result is difficult for anybody but that person to really appreciate: the value becomes opaque in this way.

This problem has an interesting affect on design as well. For those designers who refuse to find ways to fight this problem, designing social software is going to be very difficult. They won’t be able to put themselves into a position of someone who wants to keep up to date with their social network, which is something that all of these sites are doing. Instead, they’ll focus on designing things that have an obvious benefit for everyone…which means that they’ll probably have more competition as well. It’s precisely because of the opaque value problem that services like Twitter come out of nowhere…in an unpredictable way…to really catch people’s attention.

Now, there might be a group of people who could have anticipated the rise of Twitter…social psychologists, for example. They might have been able to see that lots of folks do want to know what their social group is up to and like to share their own updates…but for the most part social psychologists aren’t cross-pollinating with designers, with notable exceptions like Duncan Watts going to Yahoo. Moves like this make lots of sense…because social psychologists are trained to bust through the opaque value problem.

However, designers may still succeed even if they can’t break through the opaque value problem if they can design for themselves and then generalize their design for others, but for the most part designers either have compassion or they don’t. If they have compassion, they’ll do good work because they will care to know if their designs succeed. They’ll actually pay attention to whether their design is working for folks and if it’s not they’ll fix it. If they’re not compassionate they won’t do this.

But back to the issue at hand: Why do people use Twitter? That’s actually the wrong question, as it is too general. Let’s modify it from the general to the specific.

Why do you use Twitter?

Published: June 22nd, 2007

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