Twitter –

Twitter doesn’t like to think of itself as a social media company like Faceook or LinkedIn but instead perceives itself as an information provider. In reality, it spans both sectors but risks falling in between unless it continues to evolve its own niche, something it’s attempting to do with an impending series of major changes.

Defining Twitter has always been one of the harder concepts in explaining to sceptics who wonder how its micro-blogging structure with a 140 character restriction per post can be relevant to social marketing.

Twitter is much more open than social media services like Facebook, because if you search for a topic, you see all the most recent comments – unless specifically blocked – not just those by people who you are ‘following’. Twitter is also very fast at updating information, so on issues of global interest, be it celebrity or tragedy, new tweets are often added every few seconds.

Twitter can contain a tremendous amount of ephemeral trivia but has also increasingly demonstrated its capacity to create real news – nearly triggering the downfall of the Irish Prime Minister last week. A tweet by an opposition politician suggested the Prime Minister sounded either drunk or hungover in a morning radio interview, triggering immediate demands for comment from political reporters, all within an hour of the initial broadcast. The story was picked up by more than 500 news organisations globally and acted as the tipping point for questions about the leader’s suitability for high office. It’s a political example, but the new rules of instant media apply to any kind of brand awareness, both positive and negative.

Grasping the power of Twitter can sometimes be a little difficult until you see people you’re interested in making comments on topics that you care about – and suddenly you sense the open debate it creates and the relative equality every voice and idea carries.

More broadly, a convergence of social media services is underway, with Facebook and Google trying to incorporate specialised tasks like geotagging into their products, and Twitter is retaliating with an expansion of its own core service. In the future it will split the main page into two vertical panels as you can see on its own website, and it will move away from a near ticker-tape functionality.

Instead of 140 character ‘tweets’ that can contain abbreviated links to webpages, videos and photos that are hosted elsewhere – taking users away from the Twitter site – multimedia will now be directly incorporated within Twitter, as this clever video illustrates.

There are a number of other changes, such as referencing search results that are directly linked to each tweet. These will pop out to the right of the main status update feed, where you’ll also find more accessible information on user profiles. The changes are going to take effect over the coming weeks, says Twitter.

So, while Google and Facebook tread on Twitter’s territory, it’s retaliating with an offensive strategy of its own – all developments that will affect your own social media strategies and how you evaluate the relative merits of each channel to reach specific customers.

It’s not clear if Twitter’s most fervent users will embrace the change, since many adore the simplicity of its interface and may be turned off by the enhancements which they may see as a distraction from its core purpose. The social bookmarking site Digg had an unhappy reaction from many of its most enthusiastic users in recent weeks, when they expressed discontent at its new interface, which draws it closer to a social media network than its original mission.

One lesson for social media marketing professionals is to stay abreast of the evolving media space and to bear in mind that the video, photo and search capabilities of Twitter mean you must think about more than short bursts of text if you wish to make the most of its capabilities.

A second lesson is the increasing power and credibility of instant new media, as the Irish political system has just discovered.