[tweetmeme]All you systems theory buffs out there are probably familiar with the concept of “emergence”. For the rest of you, here’s a quick and dirty definition: Emergence describes the way that complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. The idea of emergence, although it might sound complicated, is important when thinking about social media because it helps us understand how cyberculture has developed and how our rules and rituals that we use when we interact online continue to evolve. When social scientists who study cyberculture find a new pattern of behavior or ritual that is unique to the online world, they often call it “an emergent behavior”, which is a fancy name for a social rule that a lot of people follow that no one person mandated. I’d like to talk a little bit about this in the context of a platform we all know well: Twitter.
The Evolution Of The Retweet
Since it’s launch in July 2006, Twitter has grown to over a million users. According to TechCrunch, as of March last year, Twitter users were firing off around 3 million tweets a DAY. Chew on that for a second. There’s a community out there of over a million people generating millions of tiny messages daily from a variety of different devices and applications (web, mobile, desktop clients etc). What’s important to realize (for the purposes of this discussion) is that the creators of Twitter never published a list of social rules for its users, and said “GO”. No one ever told us how to use the platform. We just did. We figured it out as we went along. We watched others. We copied. Those of us who were innovators tried new ways to “tweet” and other people noticed and copied us. Over a year and a half after Twitter’s launch, over a million of us that use Twitter know that it has social rules and etiquette – these are the patterns that emergence describes. We reinforce those rituals every time we use Twitter by following the rules we’ve made for ourselves (and by reprimanding those that don’t).
Retweeting is a perfect example of one of these emergent, ritualistic behaviors in Twitter culture. Retweeting has rules associated with it, and the behavior has evolved over time. I remember when it was common for people to full-on write “Retweeting @username” in front of a tweet, burning up their 140 characters just to give another person credit. Necessity for brevity, of course, has resulted in “RT” being the universally understood indicator over time, but there was no rule that said they had to give another person credit at all… but they figured out a simple way to do it because they wanted to. Because it’s the right thing to do. Within months, everyone was doing it. Now it’s a mainstay of Twitter culture…at least until someone else comes up with a better, briefer way to re-broadcast someone else’s message while giving credit. Who knows…maybe it’ll end up being just R @username. Culture and social rules are always evolving.
Why Entrepreneurs & Developers Should Care About Emergent Culture:
Since Twitter opened up it’s API, countless numbers of entrepreneurial-minded developers have released applications and services that integrate with and build on Twitter (my favorites include apps and add-ons like Adaptive Blue’s Glue, Tweetdeck, and Tweetsville for the iPhone). Here’s the problem – because of Twitter’s growth and popularity, there are A LOT of people developing apps that don’t really do anything different! Some of them look neat, and the UI is pretty, but the fundamental functionality across many apps is the same, which is BORING. There is nothing remarkable about something that takes what everyone does already and repackages it into something that just looks prettier. What a waste of creative energy. A shiny new UI that does the same thing still makes it difficult for consumers to decide what to use. The applications that DO stand out, however, are ones that have taken into account new, emergent behaviors and built them into their design.
Tweetdeck and Tweetsville are perfect examples of apps that stand out for this very reason. They were some of the first to incorporate cultural trends and add automated “Retweet” functionality into their UI. The developers saw an opporuntity to take an emergent behavior that was cumbersome (cutting and pasting someone elses message and adding “RT @username” to the message) and automate it. Brilliant. THIS IS DIFFERENT. It adds value. In all the noise, these were apps that got noticed and talked about because they were fundamentally more useful because the developers were in tune with the culture.
Some Insights for Developers and Entrepreneurs:
So what can we learn from this example? Here are some quick insights for entrepreneurial-minded developers that want to pack a punch in the market…
- Developers, when you build a completely new application or service and release it into the world, people will use it in unexpected, unanticipated ways. Watch the crowd. Notice the patterns. They are tell-tales for what your next design steps should be. Never stop tweaking.
- Entrepreneurs, if you’re building on top of an already-popular platform, you need to be keenly aware of the existing culture and tailor your service or app not only to what people are expected to do, but to incorporate emerging behaviors into design decisions. Repackaging existing functionality into something that looks good isn’t enough and won’t get you noticed. Culture is always evolving. Finding emerging behaviors that create needs that haven’t been addressed yet by others is a golden opportunity ripe for exploitation.
- Every platform has it’s own culture, social rules and etiquette, but many online social rules are common across platforms. Take these common patterns into account. These are your staples that should never be ignored.
- Heavy Users who are very popular on a social service act like beacons that guide the behavior of large followings. Watch them for patterns. They are the ones that will pick up on new and useful behaviors and broadcast them to the rest. They are people who turn early patterns into mainstays of culture.
- When a service forces people to interact in new ways, new patterns are born. Innovators aren’t always the people who are heavy users from the beginning. They are just the creative ones that see and exploit opportunities to use a service in new ways, sometimes unintentionally. Because these people aren’t necessarily popular, you’ll have to work hard to identify them and engage them for feedback. Make giving feedback easy. Contact people directly who are doing new things with what you’ve built. Ask them why. The answers you get might floor you.
Credit Where Credit is due:
Tim O’Reilly was the very first person I ever saw “Retweet” someone else’s message (it must have been some time around ETech 08, because that’s when I found out about Twitter) so I just wanted to offer him an “innovator” shout-out. I remember seeing that word “Retweet” and thinking “huh, a twitter-footnote! How honorable and transparent!” From then on I did the same. Tim, if you’re reading this, do you remember who the first person you ever Retweeted was?