Fri 25 Sep 2009
Recent discussion about the future of Twitter got me thinking: is Twitter a public good?
First, let's make sure we're on the same page about public goods. Public goods have two properties – when one person takes advantage of the good, it doesn't reduce the amount available to anyone else (that's called non-rivalry) and you provide the good to everyone or no one, you can't selectively exclude some people from taking advantage of the good (that's called non-excludability). Traditional examples of this are things like clean air and national defense. My breathing easier, my being safer doesn't take away from your breathing easier or being safer. And we all breathe easy, we all benefit from safety.
So, is Twitter a public good? Well, yes and no. First let's start with the 'no'. Depending on how it's used, Twitter is a point-to-point or broadcast communication tool. In that capacity, we could argue that it does not constitute a public good. No more than email or letters do, anyway. If I post a tweet about my breakfast, where is the public value there? Where is the 'good' in the sense of something which can benefit many?
But then again, there is a 'good' there. It's a derivative good, but it's important. When people make their tweets public, they are doing at least two things: first, they are communicating with friends and family (or strangers). This is probably what they were trying to do. But second, they are contributing a bit of information to a collective body of real-time information about what people are doing and thinking about.
This is the power of Twitter trends and Twitter analytics. (See Twitter Search, Twitalyzer, Tinker, Brizzly, or Trendistic, just to name a few…) By aggregating all those tiny bites, we get a public body of information that can tell us a lot about what's going on. If I want to know what people are thinking about, paying attention to today (or at least what the tiny fraction of Americans who Tweet are thinking about), I can use Twitter to find out. And just like any public good, there's a social dilemma there. I read my Twitter stream all the time, but I almost never Tweet myself. I search the stream and look at trends, but I don't add my bites to the stream. I'm a taker, but not a giver. So technically I'm a free-rider.
But there's another interesting dimension there. If the Twitter public good is a derivative by-product, that means that many or most people are contributing to it without intending to. Like i said, they're just sharing some info. about their day. Many of them may not be aware that their info. is helping to make Twitter Trends more powerful. So how can we call them free-riders? It's like saying the people who don't edit Wikipedia because they don't know they can are free-riders. From one point of view they are, but the definition of a free-rider requires an informed choice to take advantage of others. So, we'd better look more closely.
Here's another example: Netflix' movie rating system. If I never rate movies, I still benefit from the algorithms that suggest movies I might like, but I'm not putting in my little bites. This may be because I don't even know that this is how the movie recommendation algorithm works. Am I a free-rider, even though I never knew about the derivative product of my ratings? On the other hand, I might rate movies all the time, but only because I like to have a reminder of how I liked movies I've seen over time. I don't know or care that those ratings get used for anything else.
Anyway, I think there are some interesting issues here. But getting back to the original question – Is Twitter a public good? – I'm going to come down on the side of a definitive 'Yes!'. But there's a lot of interesting thinking and research to do on the question of exactly how it's a public good.