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June 9, 2008

When old becomes new again – SMS and Twitter

SAN FRANCISCO, USA – The humble SMS text message was a throwaway by-product of mobile network service messaging – 160 characters to shuttle unimportant service and billing information into and out of the mobile phone. At one point, some realized that maybe, just maybe, business people could use it for important business messages. It was ridiculed, though – what could anyone say in 160 characters or less? Also, operators created a whole range of SMS-based services, mostly info or download services.

Yet, it wasn’t the business-types who took to SMS. And the only SMS service that really raked in the money was ring-tone downloads, which has been declining in recent years. The real use for SMS originated with the youth who viewed it as an easy hack for communicating easily and on the cheap. They had a lot to say in 160 characters or less, to the tune of almost 2 trillion messages globally last year. Communication has trumped consumption.

And SMS still has far to go. Its simplicity is its strength. Case in point: Twitter.

Twitter is a dastardly simple service that asks it users to answer a simple question ‘What are you doing?’. While many people use the service from the Twitter web page, or with different sort of PC or IM client, Twitter clearly has SMS in mind: messages are limited to 140 characters. And indeed, many folks are using Twitter from their mobiles.

Twitter then adds a twist to these updates. The whole point is in subscribing to other people, receiving all their updates close to real time. Twitter then becomes an informal ambient noise of what’s happening with the folks you follow, and a shared story develops, or enhances the shared story you already have in the real world. The great Lee Lefever explains it best in his ‘plain English’ video.

This simplicity allows for the many ways folks are using Twitter. Some keep their update stream public and let anyone follow them. Others [CS: like me] are particular of who they follow and keep their update stream private to only those they allow to see it. Also, a grammar has developed to mention someone, send a direct private message, or highlight an item. And it is upon these simple features that some even more interesting things have been built upon Twitter.

Here are some examples:

But there is one other service that is built upon Twitter that I find very interesting – Twiterfone. Basically, instead of typing in a message, you just call an access number, record your message, and Twitterfone transcribes it and posts it to your stream (with a link to the audio).

That’s so old skool it’s brilliant – merging something simple like voice (which every phone can do, right?) with SMS (Twitter, actually) through basic and simple internet magic dust.

Twitter uses simple tech with simple features to help people communicate better. And by crafting the service just right, Twitter has served as a coral reef upon which many colourful and varied services have grown upon. Yeah, SMS still has a long way to go. And the creativity around Twitter is any indication, there are still many more tricks locked up in those 160 characters.

So, my question to you: Do you have more examples of SMS (or voice) cleverness in use today (Twitter examples count, too)? Do you have clever ways of using SMS?

Image from me’nthedogs