Does Twitter matter?

There’s a small dustup underway on the blogoshpere today regarding the relevancy of Twitter. If you scroll all the way down on my blog, you’ll see that I’m an occasional poster to Twitter. I follow a bunch of people, mostly through the Firefox extension TwitterFox, which I’ve found to be the best way to monitor the rants, raves, and occasional nuggets of wisdom from Tweet-land. As for my personal tweets, I try to keep the noise out there to a minimum.

Anyway, it seems that the spark that ignited the debate came yesterday from this brief post by Wall Street Journal writer Kara Swisher. She struck a similar cord that I’ve seen amongst my friends and colleagues. Most don’t use, never heard of, and don’t care what about Twitter is. Taking that thought even further, Gina Tripani, over at Lifehacker, is conducting a poll asking whether trendy Web 2.0 social applications (Twitter, FriendFeed, etc.) are only useful for the geek elite. When put in the context of Gina’s question, it is true that these trendy apps are only immediately useful to the digital elites. I think usefulness and overall impact are two different things, however. As Stevel Rubel reminds us, even a small clique of users can have a large influence in the broader media. The simple fact that major corporations are tracking tweets serves as evidence of the impact of Twitter. The direct usefulness of Twitter maybe limited to a small number of people, but the impact can be felt well beyond that group.

There is also another angle to think about when looking at niche applications like Twitter. The channels of communication that they unearth will eventually drive the way enterprise applications are built. Of the many challenges that face traditional enterprise software companies, none is greater than trying to figure out how to move their industrial platforms (which were designed primarily around accelerating transactional processes) to a more flexible environment where ‘conversations’ within and across organizations are enabled and fluid. The best efforts to accomplish this, so far, have been limited to poorly executed ‘Live Chat’ applications, or some enhanced forum tools. What applications like Twitter (and for that matter Facebook) have done is expose new channels of communication for organizations. As an aggregate, enterprise software companies have automated transactional processes, creating much of the productivity gains of the last two decades. Any further improvements in transactional efficiency will be incremental at best. But one real opportunity is to pick up on non-invasive, non-transactional conversations which form the 75-80% of space where ‘stuff really happens’ in organizations. Twitter is just one of the newer tools that is exposing simplified ways to create ‘opt-in’ engagement on ideas and topics.

So, does Twitter matter? It does. It may evolve into the next generation instant messenger, but it also has the potential of impacting the way organizations manage opt-in communications across all of its constituencies.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Lifehacker’s question was spawned by this post on Alexander van Elsa’s Weblog.