I’ve been using Twitter for several months now and have a much better understanding of it than I had before. It is a lot like email, in the sense that its possibilities are not immediately apparent until they are explored (in other words, email was not just a quicker way to send email but an entirely new form of communication.)
Why Twitter is Great Now
There are a few revolutions contained within Twitter, and I will explore each of them before concluding with the reasons I think the service will be replaced with something better, or morph itself.
The first is its radical openness. My usual description is of many people speaking loudly in a big room. Conversations are audible by everybody, even if they are formulated as private thoughts or 2-way conversations. The benefits of this model are tremendous and readily apparent: massive polls can be taken quickly, everyone can shape a conversation, and like-minded people can quickly span multiple degrees of separation to encounter one another. It takes the process begun with Facebook wall posts to a more extreme, less personal level. All well and fine.
The second is is aggregate-ability. The buzzword “live search” is now being used, describing the body of tweets as a rich live data source that can be collated and related together through search. Add to this a shifting tag cloud and you’ve got a real hive mind going.
The third, and I believe least important, is its character limit. Much is made of the effects of 140-character limits on discourse, but I think it is arbitrary and silly. Longer thoughts are broken up into multiple tweets or included in a link; shorter sentences probably would have been short anyways.
What I believe is important about the 140-character limit is that it has made our tweets accessible. They are easy to create and easy to scan through and aggregate; but I don’t think that a 140-character limit is necessary to achieve those aims.
While Twitter has given us the ability to speak in the moment to anybody, its ability to collate these discussions is actually piss-poor. Yes, it’s clear that many people are tweeting about healthcare, but what are they saying. A click on the tag might reveal 50 tweets; how do those possibly represent the many thousands of tweets? How many Twitterers are for a healthcare bill and how many are not? How many are watching CNN and how many are actually Senators?
Twitter’s primary limitation, which it will never be able to overcome as long as it is passing only little bits of plain text, is that it leaves all the processing to our own brains. Two friends might tweet that they are in Boston for the weekend, and unless they or somebody else notices this, neither will find out. Thousands will review a movie on Twitter, but it will take a special website to extract this information.
Twitter’s secondary limitation is its inflexibility. 140 characters is enough to link to anything, but this is a simple hack. We need a platform that contains longer articles, photos and multimedia, television broadcasts, flight schedules, etc.
On to the Future
The future will look a lot like what we call the semantic web. The concept has been lambasted many times but I believe in it wholeheartedly. It’s a web where relationships between data are defined and actionable.
The future platform I envision will encompass everything you let it. Typed documents, IM conversations, emails, blog postings and articles, and all other forms of media. The platform will have a rudimentary ability to determine the meaning of typed words, which will grow with the size of the data collection. It will know what you have seen on TV, what you have read, etc., and when you type something similar to something you have read, a box will pop up asking you whether the thought came from that source. Far more sophisticated than something like a Retweet, the platform will collate your life with that of those around you, identifying shared throughlines and influences.
With this platform any information will be shareable, and innovative ways to browse and query this information accessible to anybody. If you are working on a paper and would like help with a question, select which part to make public and throw the question out into the ether. People who have written similar papers or helped you on papers before will be notified. Like a wildly more advanced version of Facebook’s News Feed.
The only thing left will be our day-to-day conversations, and these will certainly be indexable too. What horror will come when the Google haze comes to rest on even our day-to-day interactions, but I think it is inevitable.
The Chief Contender
Did somebody say Google? When considering the requirements for a next generation of Twitter, I begin to see Google Wave as its visionary successor. I think that Google Wave’s current presentation is only a subset of what it will be able to do, and see its ambition as extending far beyond its current state. What Wave is really creating is a socially mediated way to share everything, with no regard for location on the web or medium. It’s all integrated into one platform (like Twitter) that can be searched and aggregated. But it comes with complex social webs and privacy functions built in, and is infinitely more flexible.
Imagine if your cell phone creates Waves, not calls, that can be indexed and edited, synced with information already known about your contacts. In not so much time, text messages and voice conversations can be incorporated into a shifting, interrelated mass of information that is your experience.
Now yes, that’s creepy. But tell me it’s not coming. And tell me it’s not going to blow Twitter out of the water.