Last September the NY Times did a terrific job of explaining microblogging, including the key elements of Facebook and Twitter. However, one thing has always bothered me about Twitter and Facebook status updates.
I believe that there is nothing new under the sun. Consumer behavior is typically consistent, and usually when you find a very fast growing online phenomena, you can find a popular real world analogue to that behavior. I think that there needs to be a familiar cognitive “hook” for any new online activity to really grab consumer mindshare. If the online activity parallels a familiar offline activity, or a familiar activity in another online medium, then you can see very rapid growth. Examples include MySpace’s profile customization (analogous to buddy icons in instant messaging, .sig files in email and even stickers on highschool lockers), Stardolls (analogous to real world dolls) and Digg (analogous to forwarding viral emails).
I’ve never been able to pinpoint a real world analogue to microblogging. However, I think I may have thought of a candidate – Holiday letters.
Sending holiday cards is very widespread. Almost every family sends them. Many people include a letter with their holiday cards that tells the recipients what they have been doing all year. Holiday mailing lists are often fairly broad and include close friends, business associates, and people who were once close friends that have since faded into the background. In particular, old classmates, colleagues from past jobs, friends from cities you once lived in but don’t any more are all prominent categories of holiday card recipient.
A holiday letter’s primary purpose is to share what is going on in your life, and through that to maintain closeness. These days, the cards often include family photos. The letter is part bragging, part travelogue, but always carefully constructed to show the writer in the best light. A good holiday letter is a little bit funny, a little bit personal, but it manages to catalogue achievements. We vacationed in Hawaii. Little Timmy made the football team. Dad got a promotion. Jane got into lawschool. You’ve read them before.
Twitterers and Facebook status junkies, does this sound familiar? Similar audience, similar objectives, just smaller scale. It isn’t getting into lawschool that you tweet, it’s eating at French Laundry , or being at SXSW. It still burnishes your image. Microblogging is a more continuous, lighter weight online version of holiday letters.
What do readers think? Can they think of a better real world analogy? I’m all ears.