Can Twitter Survive What is About to Happen to It?

I am worried about Twitter. I love it the way it is today. But it’s about to change big time, and I wonder whether it can survive the transition.

Twitter is still relatively small in terms of users, and most of the content is still being added by people. But not for long. Two things are beginning to happen that will change Twitter massively:

  1. 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.
  2. Notifications Galore. Every service on the Web is going to rush to pump notifications and invites into Twitter.

Twitter reminds me of CB radio — and that is a double-edged blessing. In Twitter the “radio frequencies” are people and hashtags. If you post to your Twitter account, or do an @reply to someone else, you are broadcasting to all the followers of that account. Similarly, if you tweet something and add hashtags to it, you are broadcasting that to everyone who follows those hashtags.

This reminds me of something I found out about in New York City a few years back. If you have ever been in a taxi in NYC you may have noticed that your driver was chatting on the radio with other drivers — not the taxi dispatch radio, but a second radio that many of them have in their cabs. It turns out the taxi drivers were tuned into a short range radio frequency for chatting with each other — essentially a pirate CB radio channel.

This channel was full of taxi driver banter in various languages and seemed to be quite active. But there was a problem. Every five minutes or so, the normal taxi chatter would be punctuated by someone shouting insults at all the taxi drivers.

When I asked my driver about this he said, “Yes, that is very annoying. Some guy has a high powered radio somewhere in Manhattan and he sits there all day on this channel and just shouts insults at us.” This is the problem that Twitter may soon face. Open channels are great because they are open. They also can become aweful, because they are open.

The fact that Twitter has open channels for communication is great. But these channels are fragile and are at risk from several kinds of overload:

  • Hypertweeting. Some Twitter users tweet legitimately, but far too much. Or the content they tweet is just innane. In doing so they market themselves and dominate everyone’s attention with their presence.
  • Hashtag Spam. For example, an advertiser could easily pump out tweets that market their products, and simply attach popular hashtags to them, thus spamming those “channels” with ads. Similarly, clueless users could do the same thing.
  • @reply Spam.
    Another way that spammers could create annoyances in Twitter is by doing @replies to people, with ads for products, or simply to make trouble.
  • Twitter Chains. It is easy to package a highly contagious meme as a tweet that spreads linearly or exponentially. Some variations of this are highly self-replicating and can quickly spread to millions of people. There are various ways to design such memes to spread exponentially and across multi-level relationships with extreme virality. Multi-level marketers and others could take advantage of this to create havoc, and even potentially flood Twitter with multi-level messages to the point of crashing it.
  • Notification Overload. Another issue is the rise of Twitter bots from various services, whether benign in nature or deliberately spammy:
    • It won’t be long before every social network starts pumping updates into Twitter.
    • News and content sites are starting to pump updates into Twitter for every article they publish.
    • Games
      and MMPORG’s are starting to pump notifications for things that take place in their worlds, into Twitter (e.g. player x just defeated player y in a battle)
    • A variety of other desktop, online and mobile apps will be pumping notifications into Twitter

There is soon going to be vastly more content in Twitter, and too much of it will be noise.

The Solution: New Ways to Filter Twitter

The solution to this is filtering. But filtering capabilities are weak at best in existing Twitter apps. And even if app developers start adding them, there are limitations built into Twitter’s messaging system that make it difficult to do sophisticated filtering.

Number of Followers as a Filter. One way to filter would be to use social filtering to infer the value of content. For example, content by people with more followers might have a higher reputation score. But let’s face it, there are people on Twitter who are acquiring followers using all sorts of tricky techniques — like using auto-follow or simply following everyone they can find in the hopes that they will be followed back. Or offering money or prizes to followers — a recent trend. The number of followers someone has does not necessarily reflect reputation.

Re-Tweeting Activity as a Filter. A better measure of reputation might be how many times someone is re-tweeted. RT’s definitely indicate whether someone is adding value to the network. That is worth considering.

Social Network Analysis as a Filter. One might also analyze the social graph to build filters. For example, by looking at who is followed by who. Something similar to Google PageRank might even be possible in Twitter. You could figure out that for certain topics, certain people are more central than others,  by analyzing how many other people who tweet about those topics are following them. Ok good.
Nobody can patent this now.

Metadata for Filtering. But we are going to need more than inferred filtering I believe. We are going to need ways to filter Twitter messages by sender, type of content, size, publisher, trust, popularity, content rating, MIME type, etc. This is going to require metadata in Twitter, ultimately.

Broadly speaking there are two main ways that metadata could be added to Twitter:

  1. Metadata Added Outside Twitter. Twitter messages could simply be URLs that point to further resources that in turn carry the actual body and metadata of each message. Thus a message might just be a single URL. Clicking that URL would yield a web page with the content and then XML or RDF metadata about the message. If this were to happen, Twitter messages would be simply URLs created and sent by outside client software — and they would require outside software (special Twitter clients) to unpack and read them.
  2. Metadata Added Inside Twitter. Another solution would be for Twitter to extend their message schema so every Twitter message has two parts, a 140 char body and a metadata section with a certain amount of space as well. This would be great. It would be a good move for the people at Twitter to jump the gun by enabling this sooner rather than later. It will help them protect their control over their own franchise.

One thing is certain. In the next 2 years Twitter is going to fill up with so much information, spam and noise that it will become unusable. Just like much of USENET. The solution will be to enable better filtering of Twitter, and this will require metadata about each tweet.

Someone IS going to do this — perhaps it will come from third-party developers who make Twitter clients, or perhaps from the folks who make Twitter itself. It has to happen.

(To followup on this find me at

Now read Part II: Best Practices – Proposed Do’s and Don’t’s for Using Twitter

See Also:

This article on CNET

A new article on CNET mentioning this article

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