With all the excitement about the Crunchies awards, I thought I should cast my ballot: Twitter. No, not because it’s the best product (I think Android is), but because it has impacted me the most. To young TechCrunch readers, this post will seem pretty lame. An old professor trying to seem hip by writing about social networking. Yawn. But I’ve never been a fan of social media. I have more than 500 connections on LinkedIn, but have never invited anyone to network with me. I’ve never used LinkedIn to ask anyone for an introduction. I never had a blog (I find it much more effective to write for BusinessWeek and TechCrunch). I never had a Myspace account (does anyone still use Myspace?) . Even when I signed up for Facebook, I did it reluctantly because I kept getting friend requests and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
But Twitter is a different. I get a stream of concise notes from people who want to bring things to my attention and from news outlets. I can follow anyone who seems extraordinarily interesting (and doesn’t tweet about brushing their teeth every morning). I can read up about people I’m not following any time I want. And I get immediate feedback to my ideas.
I didn’t feel this way a few months ago. To me, Twitter seemed like another silly tool for kids to tell each other how much alcohol they had just consumed. But a respected professor of journalism at Columbia University, Sree Sreenivasan (@sreenet) kept sending me emails suggesting I sign up for his webcasts on Twitter for journalists. And he kept telling me I would “be a natural” on Twitter. Why would I send streams of short messages to people I don’t know, I wondered? Sree insisted I try it. So I did. And he became my first follower.
It was pretty lonely at first, tweeting to myself, and I was rapidly losing interest. Having six followers (two of which wanted me to check out their sexy pictures) seemed pretty embarrassing. Then BusinessWeek’s former community editor, Shirley Brady (@shirleybrady) came to my rescue and tweeted to ask her followers to follow me. Soon I had over a hundred people to talk to and it didn’t seem so bad. But my tweeting quickly went beyond conversations and into new and better ways of accomplishing tasks.
Last July, my research team published a paper about the backgrounds and motivations of entrepreneurs. I created a slide show on this for BusinessWeek. One reader asked me a question which haunted me: what is the difference between a small business owner and an entrepreneur? I had assumed that everyone who starts a business was an entrepreneur. But the more I researched this topic, the more obvious it became that there was no clear answer.
So I went to my new friend: Twitter. I asked my followers if they could help me solve this puzzle. Before I knew it, I had received several insightful responses. I ended up writing this BusinessWeek piece which featured Sue Drakeford, Miss Nebraska 2001 (yes, she does tweet). Since then, I’ve had my Twitter followers help me with most of the articles I’ve written. They provide a sounding board, valuable feedback and examples. I’ve quoted several followers who offered themselves up as sources (see my last post on stealth companies – Preetam Mukherjee(@_marcellus) was one of my followers as was Alex Kosorukoff(@alexko3), who I highlighted in a post about the Founders Visa).
More recently, I’ve been getting demands from my Twitter followers for articles. My post on selling and why everyone in a tech company should have sales training came about after a series of Twitter requests. I’m writing a piece on women in engineering which is inspired by Women 2.0 founder Shaherose Charania (@shaherose) and Cisco CTO, Padmasree Warrior (@padmasree). And I’m writing a follow-up to the post on stealth because twitter followers have been bombarding me with questions about protecting intellectual property. I’ve joked that my Twitter followers seem to be setting my research and writing agenda these days and it’s not that far from the truth.
So, Twitter has become a very useful tool. I hope I never become like Sarah Lacy (@saracuda), though. On our recent trip to Jaipur, India, she tweeted while sitting on an elephant. I kid you not. She wanted to let Twitter founder Evan Williams (@ev) know she was the first to do this.
At present I have 3600 followers and they keep coming out of the woodwork. Many are amazing people. I follow only a few because I can’t keep up with all the conversations. If a follower looks very interesting I do try to at least read some of their tweetstream. I click on their names on Tweetdeck and read their last 20 posts. I have a few people I like to read closely for different purposes and topics. In that way, too, Twitter is amazing as its the most efficient mechanism I have ever seen to allow me to peruse the thoughtstreams of others who live all over the world.
I firmly believe that of all forms of social media, Twitter (or more accurately, microblogging) is the only one that could have achieved this sort of effect. Writing a full blog post is time consuming and comments can be lengthy. Who wants to read or police all of them? IM is essentially a one-to-one communications tool. Facebook has elements of microblogging but it’s not really the kind of place where I want to share thoughts about immigration reform, if you know what I mean. With Twitter, I learned it in an hour, became proficient in a few more, and spend no more than 20 minutes per day on this. Because the message size is so concise, I find people say important things (or silly things, but at least they are short silly things). So Evan and Biz, you have my vote for the Crunchies, guaranteed.
Editor’s note: It should go without saying that Vivek doesn’t get any special votes for the Crunchies other than what any TechCrunch reader gets. You can vote for your favorite startups for the Crunchies here. And you can follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa.