Random thoughts on Twitter
Obviously Twitter have tapped into something quite fundamental, which at a high level we might simply call human sociability. We humans are primates, though there’s a remarkably strong tendency to forget or ignore this. We know a lot about the intensely social lives of our fellow primate species. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we like to Twitter amongst ourselves too.
Here are a couple of interesting (to me) reasons for the popularity of Twitter.
One is that many people are in some sense atomized by the fact that many of us now work in an isolated way. Technical people who can do their work and communicate over the internet probably see less of their peers than others do. That’s just a general point, it’s not specific to Twitter or to 2008. It would have seemed unfathomably odd to humans 50 years ago to hear that many of us would be doing a large percentage of our work and social communication via machines, interacting with people who we don’t otherwise know, and who we rarely or never meet face to face. The rise of internet-based communication is obviously(?) helping to fill a gap created by this generational change.
The second point is specific to Twitter. Through brilliance or accident, the form of communication on Twitter is really special. Building a social network on nothing-implied asymmetric follower relationships is not something I would have predicted as leading to success. Maybe it worked, or could have all gone wrong, just due to random chance. But I’m inclined to believe that there’s more to it than that. Perhaps we’re all secretly voyeurs, or stickybeaks (nosy-parkers). Perhaps we like to see one half of conversations and be able to follow along if we like. Perhaps there’s a small secret thrill to promiscuously following someone and seeing if they follow you back. I don’t know the answer, but as I said above I do think Twitter have tapped into something interesting and strong here. There’s a property of us, we simple primates, that the Twitter model has managed to latch onto.
I think Twitter should change the dynamics for new users by initially assigning them ten random followers. New users can easily follow others, but if no-one is following them….. why bother? New user uptake would be much higher if they didn’t have the (correct) feeling that they were for some reason expected to want to Twitter in a vacuum. You announce a new program, called e.g., Twitter Guides and ask for people to volunteer to be guides (i.e., followers) of newbees. Lend a hand, make new friends, maybe get some followers yourself, etc. Lots of people would click to be a Guide. I bet this would change Twitter’s adoption dynamics. If you study things like random graph theory and dynamic systems, you know that making small changes to (especially initial) probabilities can have a dramatic effect on overall structure. If Twitter is eventually to reach a mass audience (whatever that means), it should be an uncontestable assertion that anything which significantly reduces the difficulty for new users to get into using it is very important.
Twitter should probably fix their reliability issues sometime soon.
I say “probably” because reliability and scaling are obviously not the most important things. Twitter has great value. It must have, or it would have lost its users long ago.
There’s a positive side to Twitter’s unreliability. People are amazed that the site goes down so often. Twitter gets snarled up in ways that give rise to a wide variety of symptoms. The result seems to be more attention, to make the service somehow more charming. It’s like a bad movie that you remember long afterwards because it wasn’t good. We don’t take Twitter for granted and move on the next service to pop up – we’re all busy standing around making snide remarks, playing armchair engineer, knowing that we too might face some of these issues, and talking, talking, talking. Twitter is a fascinating sight. Great harm is done by its unreliability, but the fact that their success so completely flies in the face of conventional wisdom is fascinating – and the fact that we find it so interesting and compelling a spectacle is fantastic for Twitter. They can fix the scaling issues, I hope. They should prove temporary. But the human side of Twitter, its character as a site, the site we stuck with and rooted for when times were so tough, the amazing little site that dropped to the canvas umpteen times but always got back to its feet, etc…. All that is permanent. If Twitter make it, they’re going to be more than just a web service. The public outages are like a rock musician or movie star doing something outrageous or threatening suicide – capturing attention. We’re drawn to the spectacle and the drama. We can’t help ourselves: it is our selves. We love it, we hate it, it brings us together to gnash our teeth when it’s down. But do we leave? Change the channel? No way.
Twitter is both the temperamental child rock star we love and, often, the medium by which we discuss it – an enviable position!
I’m reminded of a trick I learned during tens of thousands of miles of hitch-hiking. A great place to try for a lift is on a fairly high-speed curve on the on-ramp to the freeway / motorway / autopista / autoroute etc. Stand somewhere where a speeding car can only just manage a stop and only just manage to pull in away from the following traffic. Conventional wisdom tells you that you’ll never get a ride. But the opposite is true – you’ll get a ride extremely quickly. Invariably, the first thing the driver says when you get in is “Why on earth where you standing there? You’re very lucky I managed to stop. No-one would have ever picked you up standing there!” I’ve done this dozens of times. Twitter—being incredibly, unbelievably, frustratingly, unreliable and running contrary to all received wisdom—is a powerful spectacle. Human psyche is a funny thing. That’s a part of why it’s probably impossible to foretell success when mass adoption is required.
If I were running Twitter, apart from working to get the service to be more reliable, I’d be telling the engineering team to log everything. There’s a ton of value in the data flowing into Twitter.
Just as Google took internet search to a new level by link analysis, there’s another level of value in Twitter that I don’t think has really begun to be tapped yet.
PageRank, at least as I understand its early operation, ran a kind of iterative relaxation algorithm assigning and passing on credit via linked pages. A similar thing is clearly possible with Twitter, and some people have commented on this or tried to build little things that assign some form of score to users. But I think there’s a lot more that can be done. Because the Twitter API isn’t that powerful (mainly because you’re largely limited to querying as a single authorized user) and certainly because it’s rate-limited to just 70 API calls an hour, this sort of analysis will need to be done by Twitter themselves. I’m sure they’re well aware of that. Rate limiting probably helps them stay up, but it also means that the truly interesting and valuable stuff can’t be done by outsiders. I have no beef with that – I just wish Twitter would hurry up and do some of it.
Some examples in no order:
- The followers to following ratio of a Twitter user is obviously a high-level measure of that user’s “importance” (in some Twitter sense of importance). But there’s more to it than that. Who are the followers? Who do they follow, who follows them? Etc. This leads immediately back to Google PageRank.
- If a user gets followed by many people and doesn’t follow those people back, what does it say about the people involved? If X follows Y and Y then goes to look at a few pages of X’s history but does not then follow X, what do we know?
- If X has 5K followers and re-tweets a twit of Y, how many of X’s followers go check out and perhaps follow Y? What kind of people are these? (How do you advertise to them, versus others?)
- Along the lines of co-citation analysis, Twitter could build up a map showing you who you might follow. I.e., you can get pairwise distances between users X and Y by considering how many people they follow in common and how many they follow not-in-common. That would lead to a people you should be following that you’re not kind of suggestion.
- Even without co-citation analysis (or similar), Twitter should be able to tell me about people that many of the people I follow are following but whom I am not following. I’d find that very useful.
- Twitter could tell me why someone chooses to follow me. What were they looking at (if anything) before they decided to follow me? I.e., were they browsing the following list of someone else? Did they see my user name mentioned in a Tweet? Did they come in from an outside link? Would a premium Twitter user pay to have that information?
- Twitter has tons of links. They know the news as it happens. They could easily create a news site like Digg.
- In some sense the long tail of Twitter is where the value is. For instance, it doesn’t mean much if a user following 10K others follows someone. But if someone is following just 10 people, it’s much more significant. There’s more information there (probably). The Twitter mega users are in some way uninteresting – the more people they have following them and the more they follow, the less you really know (or care) about them. Yes, you could probably figure out more if you really wanted to, but if someone has 10K followers all you really know is that they’re probably famous in some way. If they add another 100 followers it’s no big deal. (I say all this a bit lightly and generally – the details might of course be fascinating and revealing – e.g., if you notice Jason Calacanis and Dave Winer have suddenly started @ messaging each other again it’s like IRC coming back from a network split :-))
- Similarly if someone with a very high followers to following ratio follows a Twitter user who has just a couple of followers, it’s a safe bet that those two are somehow friends with a pre-existing relationship.
- I bet you could do a pretty good job of putting Twitter users into boxes just based on their overall behavior, something like the 16 Myers-Briggs categories. Do you follow people back when they follow you? Do you @ answer people who @ address you (and Twitter knows when you’ve seen the original message)? Do you send @ messages to people (and how influential are those people)? Do those people @ you back (and how influential those people are says something about how interesting / provocative you are)? Do you follow tons and tons of people? Do you follow people and then un-follow them if they don’t follow you back? Do you follow random links in other people’s Twitters, and are those links accompanied by descriptive text or tinyurl links? Do you @ message people after you follow their links? Do your Twitter times follow a strict pattern, or are you on at all hours, or suddenly spending days without Twittering? Do you visit and just read much more than you tweet? How much old stuff do you read? Do you tend to talk in public or via DM? Are your tweets public?All that without even considering the content of your Twitters.
- Could Twitter become a search engine? That’s not a 100% serious question, but it’s worth considering. I don’t mean just making the content of all tweet searchable, I mean it with some sort of ranking algorithm, again perhaps akin to PageRank. If you somehow rank results by the importance or closeness of the user whose tweets match the search terms, you might have something interesting.
- Twitter also presumably know who’s talking about whom in the DM backchat. They can’t use that information in obvious way, but it’s of high value.
I could go on for hours, but that’s more than enough for now. I don’t feel like any of the above list is particularly compelling, but I do think the list of nice things they could be doing is extremely long and that Twitter have only just begun (at least publicly) to tap into the value they’re sitting on.
I think Google should buy Twitter. They have what Twitter needs: 1) engineering and scale, 2) link analysis and algorithm brilliance, and 3) they’re in a position to monetize the value illustrated above (via their search engine, that already has ads) without pissing off the Twitter community by e.g., running ads on Twitter. What percentage of Twitter users also use Google? I bet it’s very high.