That very question occurred to me today as I was DM'ing (direct messaging) a friend via Twitter. Before sending the DM, my first thought was to SMS him on my phone, or send him an email...but at the moment, sending a Twitter DM felt more efficient. I have to believe someone has already asked my same question, but even so I wanted an answer. So I publicly posed the question to my friends on Twitter, and here are some responses:

  • "I hope not. I really don't like receiving important info via DM. Plus, it's too slow for IMing."
  • "Nope. Twitter has not replaced instant messaging. It just changed the "process" (of when you need to go to IM) a bit."
  • "I don't believe Twitter has replaced IM. It's just another means of communication among your following."
  • "Quite a bit, yes. Still nice to IM, though. Less than an email, more than a tweet."
  • "Nope. Dynamic Vs Static Convos. Different uses."
  • "For some purposes, yes. But not 100%."

Ironically, we see that the very act of asking that question on Twitter demonstrates its strength. Twitter is indeed useful for instant and public addressing. However, if Twitter ceased to exist and I resorted to contact my friends via IM, could I have asked them a similar type of question? Technically, yes. However...would the recipients felt it was an appropriate use of IM?

IM is typecast as a tool versus a community. Sure, many IM apps overlay the concept of conference calls or rooms for public conversation on the technology, but I doubt most people would ever consider IM to be a community.

A tool or a community?

So is Twitter a tool or a community? I say both. Twitter is a tool that facilitates one-to-one and one-to-many communication, much like IM. I think my original question was stirring this sentiment in its replies. While technically, tweets and IM's are sent differently, the user experience is fairly similar.

At the same time, Twitter is a meta-community, consisting of smaller ad hoc communities of individuals...and this is something IM will never be. For instance, communities have culture, and while each ad hoc community on Twitter has its own understood norms established by those who interact the most, the Twitter meta-community also seems to have established an overall etiquette for communication. Of course, Twitter isn't the first; recall IRC which has its own separate culture and etiquette, and community channels.

Imagine if I sent text messages to my contacts via IM to ask my fact-finding question. I probably would have been met with some push-back because different norms exist on IM. IM is for sporadic conversations, and there's no realization of a persistent culture. Twitter and IM are not interchangeable because of their different underlying expectations for appropriate communication.

Bottom Line: First, Twitter has become a community built upon a tool, and IM will only ever be a communication tool. Secondly, persistent conversations provide history and help cement culture, and culture distinguishes community from mere communication.