What do IRC, Twitter and a sense of bewilderment have in common?

[tweetmeme]

My first run in with IRC happened about 10 years ago. I was taking CS3210 class (now defunct) at Georgia Tech where we had to learn about OS internals by finding our way around the Linux kernel. We tried out all of our little kernel hacks on a Compaq iPaq device to which we had root access. Those were some fun projects, and at one point I found myself on an IRC channel dedicated to helping Linux newbies playing with iPaq’s.

Twitter feed circa 1740 (or IRC chat capture, I couldn't quite tell)

I don’t really remember what I was looking for or what brought me there, but what stayed with me was the memory of utter bewilderment and incomprehensibility of this mode of communication. I understood IM; I understood older, 90’s style chatrooms, and I was for all intents and purposes a technically inclined person, a kernel hacker even.

IRC to me was something arcane. This feeling was reinforced by bizarre server messages, cryptic lingo, strange interfaces, and routine and nonchalant rudeness heaped onto newbies. The more I think about it the more negative a user experience I am able to recall. Now here we are in 2010, and I have this conversation with a friend, who is a Twitter virgin, explaining what Twitter is all about (Conversation was shortened and paraphrased, identities of those involved protected.):

me: these are microblogs. every message is like an SMS, just 140 characters long. i.e. there are a lot of small messages on different subjects.

friend: clearly i don’t get it :)

me: here is an example: http://twitter.com/ibagrak i know it’s complicated :)

friend: it looks like random ravings, crazy talk

me: thanks :) context is everything. people are exchanging messages, and without context it’s really hard to understand.

friend: is there no better place where messages like this can be exchanged? i mean, this is completely out in the open, right?

me: yes, exactly

friend: it seems people who tweet do so either out of loneliness or sheer boredom. i can’t see any other reason.

<end scene>

So there you have it…

I think the two experiences have more than enough in common. Despite the fact that Twitter and IRC are two applications designed for two ends of technically savvy spectrum, I would argue that neither one offers an optimal experience for its audience and new users especially. Yes, both are immensely popular, but as long as the latter conversation takes place how could anyone argue about Twitter entering mainstream?

I don’t want to knock Twitter (or IRC). Not all apps are designed for Normals. In fact, great apps can deliver great value without being designed for Normals, and I think Twitter is a living proof that. But I also think there are simple things that Twitter and IRC could do, really minor cosmetic stuff in view of everything else that’s been done, that could vastly improve user experience.

But the point is even if Twitters of this world choose not to budge, it doesn’t matter. It only matters that we choose to do it right in our application.

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