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SXSW thoughts on Twitter's past, present, future

Microblogging service may be the most pervasive broad- and narrowcasting social network, propelled by an ever-growing and sophisticated user base.

Brown University

AUSTIN, Texas--Someone blogged that South by Southwest Interactive is just like the Internet itself: disjointed, decentralized, scattered, fast, aggressive, random, fragmented, and so on.

In fact, the main commonality between the two may be that the number of attributes to describe them is infinite. Like the Internet, the annual tech conference here is an echo chamber of an echo chamber, a place where original thought and commentary get mixed up and mashed up in a highly self-referential meta conversation.

That was already the case before Twitter entered the scene at SXSW two years ago, but the microblogging service has certainly amplified the effect. It was both comical and frightening to see the uber-individualistic geeksters at SXSW captivated by the invisible rules of an ostentatious behavioral uniformity: within 1 mile of the convention center, you could observe the strange ritual of groups of people standing or sitting together, chained to their iPhones, twittering instead of talking: "SXSW. Twittering about SXSW."

The real conversation was often limited to a quick "What's your name?" or "Where's the next party?" just to have some input for the next tweet. It is indeed a read-write generation that is coming of age in the wake of an all-dominant present, with no particular loyalty to the past and maybe not even an interest in the future (see Peggy Orenstein's recent piece on "Growing up on Facebook" in The New York Times Magazine).

Yet the rise of the social digerati is unstoppable. New data by Nielsen Online shows that social-networking sites (which encompass social networks and blogs, by Nielsen's definition) are experiencing growth rates of twice as much as any of the main destination sites (search, portals, PC software sites, and e-mail). The time spent on social networks and blogging sites is growing at more than three times the rate of overall Internet growth. Furthermore, social networks are gaining traction among new audiences.

On Facebook in particular, Nielsen says, "The greatest growth...has come from people aged 35 to 49 years (+24.1 million). Furthermore, Facebook has added almost twice as many 50- to 64-year-old visitors (+13.6 million) than it has added under 18-year-old visitors (+7.3 million)."

Of all the social networks, Twitter may well be the most pervasive broad- and narrowcasting channel, propelled by an ever-growing base of users. Every day, more sophisticated Twitter business models are popping up that move the service closer into the hands of a mainstream audience: charity campaigns such as Twestival and Tweetsgiving (Robert Fabricant pointed out that there is a natural synergy between microblogging and microdonating), as well as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's efforts to use Twitter as an official channel for citywide emergency communications are just two of them.

And when even Jon Stewart features Twitter, and all major publications run how-to guides, this seems to be a clear sign that Twitter is entering the mainstream.

But is it, really? First of all, let's remember that it took the service, despite all the hype, two years to reach today's level of attention. And the adoption is primarily happening in the United States. Even the Internet population of Germany (40 million), the third-largest economy in the world, is still lagging: Twitter has only 27,000 registered German users at this point.

Let's also put Twitter usage in context of the overall digital footprint: Twitter has 11 million registered users and attracted 7 million unique visitors in February, which represents a stunning 1,382 percent growth since last year. The total Internet user base, however, consists of 1.4 billion users. The most widely used data application on the planet is SMS text messaging: 3 billion people actively use it.

And compared to Facebook's 175 million users, Twitter's numbers are minuscule. In other words: The whole world may be talking about Twitter, but the whole world is not yet talking on it. The next few months will tell us if Twitter is overhyped or if we're witnessing a revolution--and if so, if the revolution will eat itself.

That's exactly the concern of Twine founder Nova Spivack who might speak for many other early Twitter adopters when he warns of the implications of Twitter's massive growth and the increasing amount of uncontrolled abundance.

Let alone potential security vulnerabilities, he flags mainstream adoption ("Tens of millions of new users are going to flood into the service. It is going to fill up with mainstream consumers. Many of them won't have a clue how to use Twitter") and Notifications galore ("Every service on the Web is going to rush to pump notifications and invites into Twitter") as the two main threats. In his opinion, "There is soon going to be vastly more content in Twitter, and too much of it will be noise."

This raises an important question: will Twitter remain an open-ended, self-organized conversation, or will we see the emergence of more filters to make sense (and money) of all this chatter? Or, more philosophically put: can we handle abundance (the entire Twitterverse) without any scarcity (the filter/curator)?

I'd say we need some scarcity, some reduction of choices. Spivack suggests introducing adding metadata to save Twitter from its very eloquence, and there is definitely demand for organizing the "entropic chaos" that characterizes the never-ending Twitter conversation.

This could be an opportunity not only for Twitter itself but also for third-party brands acting as curators. So far, almost all Twitter apps either add value on the input side (Twitterphone, Twitterific), visualize the output (see PepsiCo's Zeitgeist app), or combine both (Tweetdeck). But one dimension is underexploited: accessibility.

"Brand curators," operating along the coordinates of organization (self-organization vs. curation) and timing (real-time versus past) of Twitter content, could offer just that: making Twitter more accessible.

For example, they could provide vertical search feeds (in real time), plus some additional context. Both could be embedded in a visually rich "landscape" view that features "favorites" (domain experts), most popular (retweeted) tweets, and "breaking tweets." In addition, Twitter curators could compile past tweets within certain categories or topic areas, as editorialized search results. Or they could create some "artificial scarcity" and offer programmed Twitter slots, limited in time and audience (Liz Kelly from Brilliant Ink told me recently about a one-hour panel of journalists on Twitter as just one example).

The brand would act as a "human" search filter, as a trusted authority that uncovers and organizes relevant tweets. This could be interesting for media companies or brands that are transforming into media companies.

It's worth pointing out that this scenario is not identical with just a branded linear Twitter feed. What I'm envisioning is a bias to commentary instead of immediacy. Not just a stream of tweets--a handpicked collage of various adjacent Twitter formats (replies, direct messages, retweets, searches). Think of it as Tweetdeck for the more passive mainstream user who wants to read tweets rather than write them.

First steps into this direction are Breaking Tweets, Guy Kawasaki's Alltop, and especially MyAlltop, the recently launched customizable version of the news rack. Offering celebrity MyAlltop lists, the service provides a blueprint for brands: it creates a dashboard that offers curated content, features star Twitterers and their recommendations, and highlights tweets by categories. MyAlltop demonstrates that the verticalization of the Twitterverse is of most value, if it goes along with a presentation that is horizontal.

The biggest opportunity may be something more fundamental, and it may be one for Twitter itself: a public archive of tweets. Have you ever wondered where the huge volume of Twitter-generated content goes? Who owns all your tweets? Are you giving away your data or sharing it? How can you access it (besides going back chronologically through the search function)?

Sure, Twitter keeps tweets and doesn't auto-delete them. You can also set up a LoudTwitter account to generate daily blog posts that contain all your tweets from the past 24 hours. Or you can use Tweetdumpr, which creates a CSV file with your last 250 tweets (it used to be the entire record; the fact that Twitter has limited it lately shows that it may have an interest in monetizing past tweets).

But all of these services work only for your own tweets and are rather cumbersome. What I'd like to see is a public Twitter archive. There is value in storing and distributing old conversations, the "now" that's long gone. Clearly, the totality of tweets represents a massive library of human thought that we need to preserve and make accessible.

In the future, wouldn't it be interesting to go back in time to rediscover the SXSW tweets from 2009? Memory is a vital aspect of all communications, a prerequisite of accountability; yes, one could even consider it a human right. With traditional media eventually locked out of the conversation, we need to maintain the ability to revisit past events (even if they were just communicative)--if not to rectify them so at least to reflect on them.

Or is there no need to remember, and we just go with the feed? Can meaning be self-organized, without scarcity, without historians, without interpreters? And are we producing any meaning at all, or is true what The Boston Globe pointed out: just as technology is giving us the ability to amplify every word we utter, we have nothing really meaningful to say?

I guess none of these questions can be answered in 140 characters. Let me know what you think, but take your time.