A few weeks ago, Kate Brodock and I got into a discussion regarding the definition of Twitter. It started as a back and forth on Twitter, and I put up a post and then she followed up with a post. This is my response to her post. The main argument I had put out is that defining Twitter is not only impossible it is also a bad idea. Though Kate seems to agree with me, she makes the point that in a business environment you sometimes are forced into defining sites. I have to concede this point to her, but I’m giving it one caveat. I don’t think you should categorize websites anymore. It’s not good business. Putting Twitter in the same category as Facebook or Blogging doesn’t work because it shares some of the same qualities as each site.
My idea would be to come up with a set of scales to put sites on. These scales should define things that are important to your business. Here are a few I thought of.
Trust - Can people trust what they get from the source? Facebook is great for this; you have to validate yourself before you create a page. Sending an email from your own domain is safe. Twitter is a little sketchy here, and I think we'll see this change in the near future as Twitter starts to monetize it's platform. IM is also a little sketchy, it's hard to validate you are who you say you are.
Timeliness - How quickly do people read your updates once posted? For Twitter, most users, if they respond or take action, will do so immediately. Email is usually a little slower, but for most users they probably read your message within the hour. This is tough to state unfortunately because everyone uses sites differently.
Message Lifetime - How long does a message exist? This isn't how long it actually stays around but how long from first sending the message can you expect people to still be viewing it. E-mail is indefinite as once it arrives in someone’s inbox they can take weeks to read it but it doesn't go away until they take an action on it. Twitter's messages can roll through the system and miss many eyes if they aren’t watching their feed.
Openness - Are your updates limited to just those that opt-in. Email updates only go to those who ask for them (or they should), IM is the same; Twitter on the other hand goes to those who want them but are public and can be seen by anyone. All three systems allow users to pass the messages to unsubscribed users, but Twitter allows anyone to find your updates at any time.
As I had written before I think we need to shy away from defining sites as social media, social networking, or blogging sites, because everything on the web is turning into a social network. If you don't believe me check out the Google Wave announcement from Google. Look at how it merges a myriad of sites/services and adds a social element to them. This is just one example, but as the web evolves having a strict system of categorization forces you to keep reviewing things every time the web evolves and either re-categorizing, redefining the categories, or creating new categories. Putting services on a sliding scale keeps you from redefining categories and allows you to just move the service up or down if the service changes.
This system has it’s flaws of course, it’s more complicated than dropping sites into categories. Putting sites on the scales is subject to opinion but at least you can look at a site in an instant and see where it falls for a specific task.