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What’s the real world analogue of Twitter and Facebook? March 30, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in facebook, twitter.

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.


1. Dean Richardson - March 30, 2009


It’s a much older medium/cultural institution, but Dave Griner likens Twitter to a 1930s-era “line-a-day” diary in this post: http://bit.ly/NBi0.

One of our ancestors kept a similar diary, and the analogy makes a great deal of sense to us as a result.

2. Seph - March 30, 2009

Suppose there are lots of ways to use twitter, which is part of the attraction. I’d liken it more to a cocktail party – where you are listening into several discussions and you can choose to participate in the ones you find interesting. A web 1.0 analogy could be the chat room although with a different structure (because the room no longer has walls) and conversations taking place over days rather than minutes.

3. Cem Sertoğlu - March 30, 2009

Somewhat more limited, but the whiteboards on/near college dorm room doors served a similar function in my college days – early 90s. The also served as a real-world FB wall for others to post stuff, as well.

4. Pete Warden - March 30, 2009

The Twitter analogy that makes sense for me is water-cooler chat with office colleagues. You only get to hear brief snippets of news from people you hardly know, but over time they build into a detailed picture of their lives.

5. ccc - March 30, 2009

I think myspace is also a modern version of a fan club(in terms of interaction with famous/entertainers). Also, as a kid, i always wanted to write letters to athletes etc. but this gives users the ability to interact with a entertainer and star to interact with fans and have inside information like a fan club.

6. Richard Kain - March 30, 2009

Clothing in general and t-shirts in particular are a good analog. They are open broadcast, but primarily worn for people one expects to see. You differentiate identity but usually not too far from the pack. They convey emotional state, brand and team allegiance (consonant with trends – victorious teams’ logos get worn more often the day after victory.) T-shirts often convey specific phrases but rarely more than 140 characters. They change regularly but like many memes in micro-blogging, get repeated and get stinky if repeated too frequently.

Cem – College whiteboards (I was also early 90s collegian) also came to mind for me.

7. ab4 - March 30, 2009

weak post. for every hockey-stick web phenomenon that has a real-world analog, there must be dozens that failed to take off despite mirroring the real world closely – virtual currencies come to mind.

you seem to have made the same mistake the case study writers for HBR do – pick up a company that’s successful (or not), pick up a strategy that happened to occur around the same time and point out the “obvious” connection. how do they know the company was successful (or not) despite that strategy, not because of?

even if you’re right, what’s the takeaway from your post? that a persistent real-world analog is necessary (but not sufficient) for a web service to become a phenomenon? doesn’t that apply to all boring, uncreative ideas on the web as well?

8. LukeG - March 30, 2009

Nice post, and a great question. It seems like the status update/holiday card style may be more prevalent among more recent twitter adopters. Among a more experienced community of users, too much talk about Little Timmy will get you unfollowed pretty quickly. If you’re not creating value (whether with humor or insight or shared knowledge) and maximizing your signal to noise ratio, you’ll be avoided.

I like the cocktail party and watercooler analogies. Twitter, especially, seems to be evolving into the place to share and talk about what’s happening/cool/important *now*.

9. Luis - March 31, 2009

Maybe what you hang out of a hotel room? (do not disturb) and then you change it to (clean this room)… or the open/closed status at the door of a shop… or the free space, versus full in a car park. Maybe those are status communicated and changed real time to inform others.

But, in face to face interaction I think “status” were communicated through non verbal language. Animals also express some “status” like anger, happiness, etc. by their body language. So, those changes of status may be a substitution when we are not together face to face but on the Net.

10. Bill Starr - March 31, 2009

I think Twitter & Facebook are quite different. Facebook is about people you used to know vs Twitter being people you want to know. (Using the Party Analogy Twitter is like going to a party to meet new people while facebook is a high school ) or college reunion – both are fun but very different.

I do like your christmas story analogy as that is exactly what we are doing at http://www.mylifelist.org, a great destination on the web to share your goals & successes! Adds a bit of depth to the social networking pool!

11. Holmes Sherloch - March 31, 2009

Holiday letter, i thought that was what blogging is all about. I used to tell my friends my current activity by updating my messenger or IM status. But they would only know only when they are in front of their computers or only if they are logged on. But doing it repeatedly or often is not easy. I think twitter does it perfectly, update your status to all your friends one shot and the thing is you don’t have to sit in front of the computer use your cell phone. I think the real world analogy of holiday letter is not good. And seriously many Tweets are so embarrassing to the tweeter often. But that’s the fun part of it. And coolest part to tweet about the price of a HDTV while you are in one store and get tweeted back from some one another store with a price to compare and decide real time, that is awesome. Even google Android’s ShopSavvy doesn’t cut it when it comes to real time store discount prices. My two cents

12. Amy Gu - April 11, 2009

It’s hard to define this as a specific thing in real-life, but this is definitely a human need in real life. When you meet your friend face to face, you will say “I have a good mood today” or ” I did bluh bluh bluh today”. The status update on facebook and twitter makes it easier and more frequent to communicate with your friends.

13. Tom Troughton - April 15, 2009

I would say bumper stickers. I live in Asheville,NC and there is a joke that a true Asheville car is loaded with bumper stickers. They state/proclaim/reflect the car owner’s beliefs and thoughts – much like a Twitter post or FB status update.
Tom Troughton

14. dave - April 18, 2009

i think the white boards in collage explains it best, and i used them all the time. maybe one of those card board circles with a pointer and you spin the circle to what best fits i.e. out of the office, home, be back in 15 minutes, vacation… obviously a lot less customizable unless you have a lot of time on your hands.

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16. Jeff - June 25, 2009

It’s funny: I had flashbacks of the holiday letters my mother would receive last week as I received a ton of high-school (even kindergarten) graduation announcements on Facebook. I completely agree: Facebook updates, for some people (mostly family types), resemble holiday letters. For others (particularly non-family types) it resembles the holiday cocktail party where you’re more likely to highlight something notable you yourself have done lately. Twitter, to me, is more like the networking function at a tradeshow.

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