When 5000 followers isn’t enough: the future of Twitter

Twitter Bird

Around 2 o’clock in the afternoon UK time, America gets online.

I have no need for a clock. I know it is around 2 o’clock because my Twitter feed suddenly goes apes**t. I see it accelerate exponentially over the course of a few minutes. I can no quicker press the ‘(x) new tweets’ banner to refresh the page, than it appears again.

I follow only 200 people (give or take a few).

Which leads me to wonder what your Twitter feed must be like if you follow 5,000 people. Or even 10,000? I daren’t imagine.

At this point in time, I can only see two reasons why you would follow 5,000 people:

  1. You are hell bent on gathering a massive following yourself. And you are following people in the vain hope that they will follow back[1].
  2. You have the latest cyber-implant from Sarif Industries which allows you to directly upload and pre-process Twitter’s firehose feed into your brain, so it’s no issue.

The end result of this is always the same, an unmanageable torrent of content. How are we supposed to make anything of this? How is it in anyway ‘useful’? Surely following a small number of people whose opinions and judgement you respect and value would be a better way to go? Yes, you’ll miss out on a few links here and there, but the majority of information you get will be useful to you.

However, there are opportunities lurking in the large datasets that Twitter is home to.

Twitter’s opportunity

Let’s face it; having a constructive conversation over Twitter is about as easy as playing pat-a-cake with your arms cut off. But what Twitter does do very well is facilitate the sharing of content. Even back in September 2010, a whole year ago, Twitter was sending 22.5 million tweets containing links.

Twitter Trending Topics
Twitter's Trending Topics in the UK (22/11/2011)

Twitter’s Trending Topics (TTs) are a fairly feeble attempt at uncovering the trends within their dataset, and suffer from being self-referential; as soon as a topic starts to trend, it immediately trends more as people start to investigate it and as the Twitter spam accounts start broadcasting tweets that simply repeat the TTs. They do nothing but scratch the surface of what is possible.

TTs incorrectly focus on common words and hashtags, instead of looking at something much more valuable: what people are sharing. Twitter could be seen as a content producer in some (limited) ways, but its value lies in its ability to distribute content quickly to large numbers of people. And it is here that the opportunity lies.

Social content

By mining its data stores, Twitter can understand the most popular content at any one time, across the whole network, by country, or even within our own sphere of interest.

Imagine a Twitter where we could see the most influential content available, ranked and ready for our attention. Suddenly, following 5,000 or even 10,000 people is not an issue, because we are being presented with the salient data from those people without having to wade through every tweet.

Twitter has enough data to be able to do this. It can provide its users with targeted and valuable content because:

  1. They know who we follow and who follows us
  2. They know what we have shared in the past (first tweet and retweeting)
  3. They know who we engage with most regularly, either through DMs or open tweets.
  4. They know what content is being shared (even that which is obfuscated behind URL shorteners)

From this they can provide us with a new view based on content relevancy and social importance. Alongside our standard view, of course, because this isn’t about either/or, it’s about augmenting what we have with a layer of intelligence.

Twitter always argued that they don’t want to lose the simplicity of the product, but by enhancing the third party tools that people use to access Twitter they can have the best of both worlds.With the purchase of Tweetdeck earlier this year, and with the greater control it is now exercising over the third-party applications that work with the service, Twitter is now well positioned to take advantage of the opportunity. As in, right now.

One step further – Goodbye Google Ripples, Goodbye Klout?

No, not really…   but kind of.

Google Ripples is an experimental visualisation of how a piece of content is shared, emanating from the source like the titular ripples from a stone thrown into water. It enables you to see how content moves through your social ecosystem and provides valuable insight to marketers. But compared to Twitter in terms of the amount of content, it’s a minnow. Imagine seeing ripples for Twitter; they could do that right now.

Klout purports to be the standard for measuring influence across the web. It’s going through a little bit of a sticky patch right now due to a change in the way it works (although I’m not complaining. my score went up from 45 to 69), but it could get a lot worse. Its weakness is that it measures from the outside and only has access to a limited set of information from each of the networks it interfaces with. Twitter has access to everything you do on their platform, so could easily understand who is producing content and how it is being shared. If it is true that Klout base their scores heavily on your primary network, why have a Klout score if you could have an ‘official’ Twitter ranking that shows the true value of the content you produce? They could do this right now.

Opportunities, opportunities

Twitter hasn’t ever had a problem with its product, but it has always had a problem with understanding what its business is.  As one of the principle ‘big data’ companies, now is the time to start making more of its most valuable asset. Content suggestion and referral, arm-in-arm with their nascent advertising model, could be a powerful product.


[1] The sad fact of this is that there are many people out there who profess to ‘Always follow back’. Quite why you would offer to follow someone back without at least looking at their content first, I don’t know.

This article is also available at , also available at Business2Community.

Terry Wogan killed the chat show

WARNING: This is a rant

I don’t usually write stuff like this… personal stuff… you know…

But this assertion has been going round my head for a few years now.

You could call this blog post: “From Parkinson to Kyle in a few easy steps”.

So, excuse me for a minute, or if you want to know why Terry Wogan killed the chat show, read on.

In the ’70s

In the ’70s, as far as I can recall, chats shows were populated by interesting people… intelligent people. They used to come on to these shows because they genuinely has something to say. They gave a little of themselves to the viewer, providing an insight into their lives, their beliefs; we understood them as people, not celebrities.

It used to be a little like this.

(Longer version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkUyDr97NU4)

For me, that’s a real chat show.

In comes Wogan

Unfortunately, in 1985, Wogan’s chat show was moved from its Saturday night slot to a thrice-weekly weekday evening slot. And that was the beginning of the end. Now, I’ve nothing personal against Terry Wogan, let me make that clear, but there is a reason that he was voted the UK’s most popular and least popular man in 1992.

When the show was on three times a week, apart from boring children like me stupid, it also created a lot of space that needed to be filled. You could no longer select from the finest guests, mixing and matching them for the best result and taking time to prepare thoughtful and illuminating questions; you just had to take whoever you could get to fill the time.

So in came the fillers, the celebrity endorsements, the non-entities with nothing to say, and at worst, the embarrassments. These were people who knew that they had the upper hand. The time needed to be filled and they would fill it, for a price.

Most of these people will be forgotten now, but a few still linger in the memory.

Or

These were embarrassing, but worse was the ones we don’t remember. The guests that should never have been there in the first place.

Out goes Wogan, in comes worse

Eventually Wogan was canned – the show, not the man – but that wasn’t the end of the story. The floodgates had now opened, now anyone could be a guest, regardless of talent or intelligence or a modicum of self-respect. And there was always the endless flow of celebrity endorsements – thinly veiled adverts that purported to be interviews. Most of the time they could have just shown a picture of the book or the trailer for the film.

The worst of these was the cringe-worthy interview with Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger during the opening of the first Planet Hollywood in London, the three of them parading around in endorsed baseball caps and jackets. We learnt nothing about them except for their restaurant and the titles of their next movies. Michael Aspel was the unfortunate ‘interviewer’. Feel the cringe at 4 minutes and 15 seconds, as Don Johnson and Melanie Griffiths get involved.

And further down…

Finally we reach rock bottom. Jeremy Kyle – the UK’s answer to Jerry Springer.

I’m speechless, witness the spectacle that is ‘Mad Dog Deon’ and his ‘talent': a skull face tattoo.

Or, to make you proud to be human, Charlotte and her measured reaction to being accused of cheating on her partner.

It’s mind-boggling. It’s almost unbelievable.

How far we’ve come, and how far we’ve delved into the gunky morass that is the general public. There’s nothing to aspire to here, only a sense of schadenfreude and ill-judged superiority. Maybe there is an argument for the ‘dumbing down’ of TV. If so, it only makes it more important that we strive to save channels like BBC Four that offer an alternative to this guff. Because, in the end, that’s exactly what it is.

Thanks Terry.

Content is more important than design – do we need any more proof?

In April I wrote an article for Smashing Magazine entitled ‘Designing for the Future Web‘. In it I laid out my thoughts and opinions on how our experience of the web would change over the next few years, and how we would need to adapt our thinking around design and content. The main points of the article were:

  1. The number of devices connected to the internet would grow
  2. We would not be able to predict with any certainty where or how our sites would be seen
  3. To maintain a seamless customer experience, users should be able to have the same core experience regardless of the device, and switching from one to the other should present no challenge.
  4. To design for this we would need to concentrate on content structure first and visual design second, creating richer experiences for more capable devices.

Unsurprisingly, considering the general audience demographic of Smashing Magazine, this didn’t go down well with some of the readers. My favourite comments being:

i feel you my friend, as far from i know design is dead and designer swept away by the multitude of the wave. im thinking doing some admin/ Logistic work rather than be a creative. suck my balls corporate people – YR

And:

…. that’s Fking RETARDED, please get better authors on here…. – Nick

Yes, I have taken that last comment slightly out of context, but it tickled me, what can you do? (He was actually talking about my views on keeping JavaScript off of first generation mobile phones).

Well, I’ll ready myself for more of the same, because, without a doubt, content is more important than design.

Go on then, tell us why

The internet has always been a joined up medium. HTML was designed to link together documents to create a ‘web’ of content that could be searched and explored.

Since the days of CERN, the amount of content that has been created has grown in unspeakably large volumes, to the point where no human could ever possibly know where to find the content they need. So we developed search engines to help us with this. They crawled and indexed on our behalf so that we could bring information to us when we needed it. And this is the crux of it: the right information when we need it.

We’ve now reached a point where the ability to access information is driving changes in the products and services that are being developed, and in our own behaviour.

Product evolution

In iOS5, Safari has finally gained the same ‘Reader’ functionality that is available on the Mac OSX version. Pressing the ‘Reader’ button will strip all design from the page and publish only the content, resized and restyled. No fancy fonts, just Georgia. It’s like you’re reading a page from a paperback. If you like it, but don’t have the time to finish it, just save it for later.

Why have they introduced this? Because Apple understands that you go to sites to consume information. That content is valuable as a traffic driver, and in turn, a revenue generator. So the experience of reading that content on a mobile devices must be as clear and simple as possible.

Service evolution

The concept that information is always available, wherever we are, is defining a new set of services. Companies like FourSquare could not have existed a few years ago, but the broad availability of hardware-specific functionality such as geo-location has changed the game. Their partnership with Groupon to provide localised real-time deals starts to hit the mark, despite the issues with the Groupon IPO. These service are not about design, they are about content. Targeted content.

Behaviour change

The evolutions in products and services are in turn driving a behaviour change. Our ability to access information wherever we are is funnelling into the purchase process. We check prices and specification in-store at the point of purchase, we may even be swayed from one brand to another, or one shop to another, by the targeted offers we receive.  Targeted location-aware, identity-aware content is turning us into savvy consumers.

The result…

We’re finally able to make good on the marketer’s dream: the ability to deliver the right  content to the right person at the right time, driving sales and adding value to the purchasing process.

It’s clear, design is the enabler not the driver; users don’t need design, they need information that benefits them in a clear and tangible way.

So, sorry designers, but content is more important than design.