All items about Twitter

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At Web2Expo this week, I chatted with Kevin Weil, who runs analytics at Twitter. We’ll publish the interview in audio form here soon, but one of the most interesting things I learned from him was how Twitter infers a relationship. Not all followers are equal, apparently.

  • If there’s a symmetric follow between two people, Twitter assumes they know one another and the relationship is conversational.
  • On the other hand, if it’s a one-way relationship — I follow the Bay Bridge, but it doesn’t follow me back — then Twitter assumes the relationship is around subject matter (in other words, I want the traffic updates from the bridge.)

Does this mean that if you’re the kind of person who follows everyone back, you’re not thought of as a subject matter expert? If so, expect a rash of unfollowing as users tweak their online profiles.

As Twitter’s opinion of us becomes increasingly important for things like advertising effectiveness, people are bound to try and game the system. Analysis of social graphs will be part of an arms race similar to that seen in Search Engine Optimization, where unscrupulous marketers try to convince Google to list them in search results. Call it Social Graph Optimization (SGO).

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The social graph land grab

The map of how humans know one another will be a tremendously valuable thing. Internet giants like Facebook and Google know how valuable the data will be — it will govern everything from how we advertise to how we give people security clearances. We’re in the middle of the biggest social graph land grab in history.

In the absence of clear guidelines or legislation with teeth, however, the industry is taking an ask-for-forgiveness-not-permission approach to social mapping.

Google has had to pivot quickly in recent months from mapping the web to mapping its users. At least it’s transparent about what it knows: the company publishes its social network mapping, showing who it knows you relate to and how.

Others aren’t so up-front. A Facebook gaffe installed applications when you visited other sites. As this piece points out, when apps install themselves it’s called malware; but on Facebook it’s a feature.

There’s little to discourage Internet giants from building this map, and if you’re online in any way, you probably can’t hide. On today’s Internet, everybody knows you’re a dog.

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Hashtag searches (note that this may be a technical constraint of how Twitter parses emoticon characters)
Hashtags are the standard way of adding meaning and context to online content, providing explicit context and making it easier for computers to understand what’s being said. And emoticons are a de facto standard for expressing sentiment that work across cultures and languages. Why haven’t we combined the two?

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Twitter - Bird with Follow Me Sign

Back in mid-2008, Twitter was just another Web 2.0 application. Industry watchers were beginning to take notice of its million or so users and speculate if it might be the start of something bigger, but most people hadn’t heard of it or didn’t “get it”. Here at Bitcurrent we pondered the rise of microblogging and the scaling problems ahead, noting a few teething problems along the way.

Towards the end of 2008, people outside of tech circles began to take notice, especially when it became a key form of communication during the Mumbai terror attacks in November. In December it became clear that Twitter was not just another social site, but a protocol for a new form of communication. By the end of the year, people were exploring all sorts of new uses for Twitter, and the Twitter pantomime was born.

But 2009 was the year that Twitter really took the world by storm.
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The #uxmtl tweet stream behind the panelists

Backchannels are all the rage at tech events these days, connecting presenter and audience like never before. They allow audiences to get more value from a presentation by communicating with each other about it. And the audience can feed back to the presenter, which helps him stay on track and know that he is being understood.

But there’s a point where a backchannel goes beyond adding interactivity to an event and begins to undermine the event itself. In November, I witnessed this at the launch of UXMTL, a community for user experience design in Montreal.

Twitter has made setting up backchannels trivially easy — with or without the consent of conference organizers — since anyone can start a Twitter backchannel simply by using a hashtag. Unlike Google Moderator or Backnoise, no specialized software is needed. At UXMTL, the event organisers simply announced that audience members should use the hashtag #uxmtl on Twitter, and all tweets for that tag were displayed on a large screen behind the panelists, using Twitterfall. For me, this completely changed my experience of the event, both as an audience member and a backchannel contributor.

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A better design for Twitter retweets

Birds on a wire

This week, many people have been given beta access to Twitter’s new Retweet feature. Unfortunately, rather than seizing the opportunity to pave the cowpaths by building a feature that reflects the way users are currently retweeting each other, Twitter have launched something which behaves quite differently.

You have to change your retweet behavior to use the new feature. This has angered many users, myself included, so I’d like to explain how I think the new feature should have been designed. To start with I’ll look at where retweeting came from, I’ll then explain some of the problems with the way it works currently, how Twitter are trying to address these problems with the new feature, and finally how I think the problems could be better addressed.

Why do we need a retweet feature anyway?

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Somewhere around 1999, I first saw a URL in a movie trailer. That confirmed for me that web technology had reached the mainstream. Clay Shirky points out that really interesting social capital applications emerge not when new technology is created, but when that technology is so mainstream as to be boring. He cites U.S. “citizen voter” applications designed to document suspicious voting practices, but is quick to emphasize that these were inspired by their low-tech predecessors in Africa.Twitter names in the credits of a Russell Howard show

Recently, I noticed something equally mainstream about a new class of technology: its appearance in movie and TV credits. As this screencap shows, the credits for @bbcgoodnews (which, I’m pretty sure, features @notrusshoward) include Twitter usernames.

Which got me thinking:
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Status update anxiety

anxious

I’ve realized I’m the least interesting person I know. My social networks tell me so.

Right now, one of my online contacts is cooking; one’s hiking in Nepal; one’s mixing music; one’s boarding a flight to Europe; one explained an idea I had better than I ever could; and one just launched some software I wish I’d built. At least, that’s what their status updates remind me.

Call it Status Update Anxiety.

Happiness is relative, as Alain de Botton so eloquently tells us. We compare ourselves to our peers, and use this as the basis for our self-esteem. In a TED presentation he gave, he makes the point that few people envy the Queen of England — after all, she’s not that like you and I, with her funny accent and strange family rituals — but we all envy the latest tech wunderkind, the classmate who flipped a house, the brother who made some smart investments.

These objects of our disaffection are just like us. Every time Sergey Brin gets up on stage in jeans and a T-shirt, he reminds us that we could have been him if we’d only thought of Pagerank. This is, of course, a gross misstatement — but the mainstream media can’t convey the underlying complexity of achievent. Many inventions seem simple in retrospect, and the one-page writeup in Wired Magazine can’t do justice to the years of hard work. As Sheryl Crow said, it takes a long time to become an overnight success.

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"Denial of Service Attack" by kryptyk on Flickr (CC)Today, social networking was attacked. The two biggest networks, Twitter and Facebook, have been subjected to denial of service attacks, causing difficulty for millions of people around the world. Other sites including FriendFeed, LiveJournal, Posterous and su.pr have also experienced outages or slow response times. Social networking services have failed before, but never all at once.

While the precise causes have yet to be established, it’s clear is that today’s events have had a measurable effect on people across the globe, and the loss of multiple social networks at the same time has highlighted some serious issues and limitations

Disconnect, reconnect

One of the first things that happened is that people flooded to other mediums such as e-mail or instant messaging to discuss what was happening. Read more »

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There’s lots of speculation about Twitter’s business model, from the serious to the comic. The firm’s backers claim the company has plenty of money for the long haul. In fact, given the openness Twitter has traditionally shown with its APIs, the model could be to let all of us speculate about it, then pick the winners.

But I’ll bite. I have an idea how Twitter could make money.

Most of the business models I’ve seen charge the publisher. Why not charge the audience?

We live in an attention economy. We’ve moved beyond the information economy — now, anyone can get access to anything. Instead, we want to know what’s worth our time. Google makes money by ranking information based on relevance; Paris Hilton makes money by pointing us at the scandalous; newspaper editors make money by selecting topics they think their readers will find interesting.

Lots of people are experts on things. I’d pay to follow someone smart and knowledgeable. Maybe only $10 a year, but in return, they’d search for useful information and tell me about it. They might be an expert on cloud computing, or web monitoring, or sustainable food, or transparent government. I’d follow them. I’d get links from them (which only susbscribers would receive, of course) to reports they’d written, or news they’d found.

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