Twitter Metaphors

Twitter is somewhat like a cocktail party.

Twitter is somewhat like talking to people at a cocktail party.

Anyone who writes or teaches understands the power of metaphor as a learning tool. With the right metaphor, you help your audience instantly transfer knowledge about one thing they know to something else they don’t know. Suddenly, they understand how to approach the new thing, how to think about it, and how to use it.

Twitter is a new communication form.  It’s not like any known communication tool. Until you use it, you can’t get your head around it. After you use it, there isn’t an easy way to explain it to others. Everyone must make the same journey to understand it. In other words, there is no good metaphor for explaining Twitter to new users.

Cocktail Party Metaphor

The most effective metaphor I’ve used (and heard others use) explains Twitter like a huge cocktail party.

  • Following and Followers. You can say that you invited people to the party when you followed them. People who are not online right now have not arrived at the party. But like all good parties, there are party crashers (people who follow you whom you don’t follow back) who also appear but were not invited.
  • Timeline. The timeline is full of many individual conversations, and skimming the timeline is like walking through the room, eavesdropping on conversations as you walk past people.
  • @Replies. The @replies are like walking up to someone, and using their name to start a new conversation, or turning to include someone new by using their name.

But the party metaphor doesn’t explain everything.

  • Direct messages (DMs). A direct message is similar to whispering in someone’s ear, except that in a party setting, you would notice that happening, and on Twitter, that communication is invisible.
  • Regular tweets. In a real party, no one stands around making announcements to the room (or if they do, the room quickly clears around them).
  • Who is in the conversation. The people talking who don’t follow you will let you stand and listen, but they are not easy to talk to. The @reply is the only way to reach them. In the same way, the party crashers are welcome to listen to you speak, but you don’t make it easy for them to talk to you. They must use an @reply to get your attention, also.

Email and IM Metaphors

Other people compare Twitter use to other electronic forms of communication. I’ve not found these metaphors to be accurate or helpful.

  • Instant messages (IM). Twitter is similar to IMs because both use short message formats and the communication takes place in real time. However, with an IM, not only must you be set up to communicate, but you must both be online to talk. If you tweet to someone who isn’t online, the message waits patiently for them to return. Also, IMs are private communication between two people.
  • Email. The only way email is similar to Twitter is that tweets are like email subject lines. However, you send an email to a specific person, and a tweet goes out to everyone who follows you.

Searching For Better Metaphors

I’m struggling to find a metaphor or set of metaphors that allow people to quickly grasp the basic Twitter features and the finer points. If you have found something that works, I would love to hear it. Please add your brilliance to the comments for this post. We’re all looking for a great Twitter metaphor.

About author:

Charlene is the information strategist behind Crow Information Design.

5 Responses to “Twitter Metaphors”

  1. Johan Lont says:

    Twitter is a multipurpose tool.
    The danger of metaphors is that you limit yourself to describing one way of using Twitter and leave out others. To explain Twitter, I recommend you give a short functional description (registration; posting 140-character messages; public timeline; following; profiles; @-replies; DMs) and then describe not one, but a list of purposes for which it is used. To list a few: chatting and joking, venting emotions (as in “This song is great!” or “That sucked.”), keeping in touch with your real-life or online friends, picking up the latest news (for example a plain crash, bush fires), learning about developments in your area of interest, finding interesting links, keeping in touch with your (potential) customers or fans, getting feedback on your ideas, finding new contacts (for business or friendship), publishing news and links, spamming. Many other uses have been found, but I believe these to be the most important ones.

    Many of these purposes require a large follower base, but many others don’t.

    But when I explain Twitter, I usually start by comparing it with a blog.

  2. Charlene says:

    Johan: Thanks for sharing your assessment. I agree that part of the challenge is the wide variety of ways people use Twitter. It’s hard for the uninitiated and those who don’t easily embrace new technology to understand the fuss. And those of us who love Twitter can’t imagine giving it up. That leaves a gap between us.

  3. [...] a month on Twitter I am trying to think of a good metaphor to describe the experience. I think the cocktail party is as good as any. Maybe just a party, which varies its character depending on the crowd, time of [...]

  4. Greg Lloyd says:

    Charlene — I like the cocktail party metaphor and have also used it myself (http://bit.ly/gUMYrB). Two suggestions:

    1) Social context: Some folk use Twitter as a marketing and promotion platform: a trade show not a party. Used in a business context, a water cooler, not a party.

    2) How Twitter extends or warps the metaphor. It’s not limited by space, time or the physical world. Its open 24 hrs and can serendipitously connect people anywhere in the world. Each person can “tune the dials” to follow people with a unique combination of interests and motivation.

    You can freely choose to listen in others speaking to the world: it’s not sneaky eavesdropping. But it’s OK to just listen, and decide to jump at any time.

    3) As a specific place on the Web, Twitter.com has millions of interesting folk, all of whom play by the same social rule (along with spammers who you can easily block). Other sites with arguably “better” tech have relatively tiny membership. Location and popularity of a place count a lot.

  5. Greg Lloyd says:

    Three suggestions! I feel like Cardinal Fang in the Monty Python “No One Expects The Spanish Inquisition” bit.

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  1. » A good metaphor for Twitter? Celestial Navigation

    [...] a month on Twitter I am trying to think of a good metaphor to describe the experience. I think the cocktail party is as good as any. Maybe just a party, which varies its character depending on the crowd, time of [...]

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