What Twitter's Good At, In Light of Google Plus

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I haven't thought about what Twitter is for years. Once something becomes a tool in your life, you stop thinking about the meaning of the thing and just use it. I do not often find myself pondering the meaning or utility of a fork; I just eat.

But that changed a few days ago when Google Plus launched. I know I've been writing about it incessantly -- to the chagrin of some readers (sorry!) -- but I think it's conceptually important, whether or not it succeeds. When a new social network launches, it gives us a different basis for comparison. New things are thrown into relief. In short, the quality and depth of the comments on Google Plus have made me reevaluate Twitter as a conversational tool.

You often hear that Twitter is a good conversation platform because people interact with each other a lot, and every so often, people trade four or five Tweets back and forth.

But Twitter isn't good at conversation, per se. Twitter is good at call and response, or what I'll call "an idea barter." Interactions on Twitter often take the form of quid pro quo. You quip, I quip back. You post a link, I post an answering link. You ask a question, I respond. You call, I respond. But it's not really a "conversation" as anyone has ever understood that word.

I don't have data to back this up, but I bet if you looked at the interactions data, you'd see the vast majority of them were one-off responses, and that there is an exponential dropoff that reaches a percent or two of interactions as you approach five and six @ replies. People are becoming conversant in new thoughts, but not actually conversing.

Of course, that's one of the things that makes Twitter so wonderful. You Tweet about something, adding value to the network, and, in return, get a bunch of reactions and new information about the topic. Then you quickly move on. It's a high-speed idea and person connecting machine. (Journalists flock to it for a reason, after all.)

I sense that Google Plus is going to be different. It won't be as good at connecting people to information or each other quickly, but it might be better at longer form discussions and whatever we call the process by which people pull reasoned thoughts from their networks into public discourse.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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