Ross Mayfield put forth a pretty interesting question on Twitter (see below). It's a great question - my thoughts below:
Enterprise Instant Messaging (IM)
In its most common use, enterprise, IM is used for point-to-point communication between individuals. Most IM systems and applications also support some form of group chat. Typically, group chat exists while participants are in the room they create temporarily. Some systems however support "persistent group chat" where rooms exist for an extended period of time. Online presence is another critical feature. People often create a "buddy list" of their contacts. Each contact displays there presence status ("away", "busy", "on the phone"). Organizations typically allow people to create buddy lists from directory and address book information. Most systems allow instant messages to be logged. Buddy list information is not viewable by other people. People not involved in the instant messaging or group chat session cannot view the content of those communications through the IM client applications. Overall, IM, given it's point-to-point centricity, is best thought of as a communication "channel". As IM systems mature, they are integrated with audio, video and telephony services (i.e., unified communications). This enables IM conversations to escalate from a text-based interaction to a VoIP call for instance. IM systems also support mobile clients and federate with Public IM/Presence systems via gateways. IM systems also allow for file transfer and some vendors provide advanced functionality (e.g., web conferencing). IM clients can be web-based or rich clients.
Email remains the most common communication method within the enterprise. It is often also (rightly or wrongly) considered the primary means people collaborate within the workplace. Email can be used for point-to-point communication as well as group communication (through distribution lists or by addressing the message to additional people). While IM is more of a real-time system, email implements a store-and-forward model. Email has been used so extensively within organizations that it is often considered a formal business document type. Because email messages can be so comprehensive, and included file attachments, they can be stored for extended periods of times within the personal e-mail inboxes of employees. Email is very free-form. People can add/subtract addressing information, alter the subject header, create a derivative conversation path by forwarding an existing email to completely different set of people. Because email has a longer "shelf-life" in terms of local inbox storage, conversations can become active again if someone decides to resurrect an old thread by replying or forwarding the message - even if the message has been dormant for extended periods time. In general, email is not viewable unless the person has been added to the address information or has been placed in a mail folder that has public access. Overall, email, like IM, is best thought of as a communication "channel". Email systems also support mobile clients. Due to the nature of email infrastructure and network routing topologies, as long as you know the email address of someone, you can send them a message (in general). Email also supports web and rich clients.
Forums are often used to structure conversations within a group of people. Generally, a topic or theme is created for the forum (e.g., "How To..."). People post a message to the forum - sometimes supplying a more detailed subject header along with information specific to that subject. Forum topics/themes can last for any length of time. Entries can be short or long. Some forums can have moderation enabled which allows entries to be staged for review before publication (or rejection). Conversations within forum are often "threaded" where people can reply to a message or to a reply to that message. Sometimes these threads are displayed in an indented/hierarchical fashion. Frequently, everyone can see all postings within a forum. Many products support alerts to be defined (often using email or RSS). Like email, forums can become confusing - there is no guarantee that entries will be "on topic". Long-running or active forums will see repeated questions submitted over and over again by "newbies". Often a forum has a FAQ associated with it so people can become familiar with the "way things are done". Overall, forums are considered a space-based means for groups to collaborate. They are not considered a "channel" form of communication as are IM and email. Because forums are more closely thought of as a "space" rather than a channel and are more similar to workspaces in concept.
Twitter is referred to as a micro-blogging tool. The service allows people to post and read brief (140 character) messages (called Tweets) to the Twitter service. While originally intended to provide a means for people to broadcast status messages, Twitter evolved rapidly into a conversation tool - and ultimately into a community and social networking site. People create a profile, elect to "follow" people and allow themselves to be followed. Each member as a URL address that publishes their profile, "followers" and who they are "following". This information is public. Community feedback resulted in an "@<Twitter Handle> feature which helps people direct messages to people and for those people to notice those comments. The "@" message is viewable. A private message is indicated by "d<Twitter Handle" and is not viewable to others. Twitter has a timeline capability so people can scroll back to see all posts or those posts made by a member. Twitter supports multiple communication channels (Web, SMS, and sometimes, IM). APIs allow numerous applications to extend Twitter in a variety of ways. Twitter messages can be sent and read across communication channels. A web post can be read via SMS. An SMS post can be picked up by one of the alternative front-ends to Twitter (e.g., TweetDeck). Overall, Twitter is best thought of as a message queuing/routing system built on top of a cache/repository platform.
- Twitter changes the notion that communication happens in channels while collaboration happens in spaces. Email and IM are examples of channels. Forums are an example of a collaborative space. Twitter implements a hybrid of this concept. Twitter can be thought of as a "communication space" with channels attached to it (Web, SMS, eMail, IM).
- Twitter is designed for channel-switching of messages. The message routing capability of Twitter enables messages to traverse different communication methods (e.g., SMS to Email). By doing this, Twitter breaks the notion that senders determine the receivers user experience (e.g., send an email forces the message to be read as email). While email and IM systems may be able to duplicate this behavior (sometimes through third-party integration), Twitter incorporates this design assumption at a more fundamental level.
- Twitter allows user-defined pathways to be created within the space. By users (using "@" and "d" prefixes to their posts) users define a "logical channel" for their tweets. This provides a great deal of visibility and transparency to Twitter messages (purely public posts, directed public posts, and private directed posts).
- Twitter enables visible network effects. Twitter also supports a "retweet" ("RT") capability which allows a message to be "forwarded". For instance, Person-A is being followed by Person-B, Person-B "retweets" a message posted by Person-A. The retweet will be picked up by all those people following Person-B. Since they may not be following Person-A this has a tremendous network effect. Person-B is also acting as a "boundary spanner" so there are interesting social networking aspects to retweeting. This capability is not really doable with IM and while e-mail messages can be forwarded, the communications are not visible and much less transparent.
- Twitter makes the buddy list public. The buddy list is an incredibly valuable source of relationship information. But it is often one of the more private sets of data people have defined for themselves. Twitter makes the buddy list an asset that can be leveraged by everyone and helps social networking dynamics. If you look at the reports coming from Mr. Tweet, the discover-and-connect aspects from mining Twitter following/followers data is much more acceptable than Email and IM because there are no perceived notions that the information is private.
- Twitter supports concepts related to "participatory surveillance" and "situational awareness". Twitter members know that following/followers information is viewable. The concept of allowing one's activities to be observed by others is well-embodied by Twitter. Controls are possible though - people can make their information private in Twitter but a permission model allows that person to share within a trusted group. By allowing greater visibility and transparency surrounding ones activities (obvious security-related issues aside), people can be more aware of information and interactions happening in an ambient manner.
Twitter is not perfect
The other point I would make to people coming from existing communication and collaboration tools is that Twitter is not perfect and is unlikely to completely replace other communication tools. While email is very much an abused application, it is still valuable in many ways when used effectively/properly. Twitter lacks presence awareness and its direct messaging capability is far from perfect so there is still a need for instant messaging. It is still difficult to track conversations and structure them in a coherent fashion, especially when multiple people are involved. Twitter does not replace the need for virtual workspaces (wikis, forums, team rooms). Also, as Twitter-like tools designed for the enterprise emerge (perhaps better classified as social messaging than micro-blogging), they will face their own hurdles (see Enterprise Twitter: Clarity Amid The Hype, and Enterprise Twitter: Not Dismissive, Just Realistic.
Overall, I'm optimistic that Twitter-like capabilities will find their way into the enterprise. In fact, I'm certain they will. The question in my mind is whether they emerge as extensions to existing unified communications platforms, or as a new class of tools (from vendors such as Yammer, ESME, Socialcast, Socialtext) that can sustain a competitive differential over time - and - satisfy the policy controls necessary to meet compliance and other demands. Vendors like IBM and Microsoft may not see enough of a critical mass (in terms of enterprise demand) to focus on social messaging. That leaves perhaps a 1-2 year window for vendors specializing in this area to take messaging in another direction than where traditional collaboration vendors (namely IBM and Microsoft) have brought us.
Twitter Compared to IM, Email and Forums
Yesterday on Twitter, I asked three questions:
- How do you explain to new Twitter users how it is different from IM?
- Great replies! Question #2: How do you explain the difference between Twitter & Email to the email generation?
- Question #3: How is Twitter different from a Forum?
How Twitter differs from IM, email and Forums is important because new users always compare things to what they know. Obviously there is a sample bias, the sheer diversity and pure gems in the below replies tell us something about what's new.