NQ Logic

Technology | Strategy | Consulting

Twitter and the Information Velocity

Last Monday, March 15, at the South by Southwest conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, the CEO of Twitter, Evan Williams announced that the company planned to introduce a new service called “@anywhere” [Video].

Similar to the way Facebook Connect allows Facebook users to sign into other websites using their Facebook accounts, the new @anywhere service will allow users to connect to their Twitter accounts through third-party websites. The easily implementable JavaScript feature will also allow users to post to Twitter from other sites and to comment on each others' tweets without visiting Twitter.com. Finally it will also create a mouse-over box displaying other contextual Twitter accounts and their most recent tweets.

@anywhere Partners List,
by Twitter.com [Mar 2010]

When the service will be officially launched, the initial partners will include leading news sites and large internet companies such as Amazon, AdAge, Bing, Citysearch, Digg, eBay, The Huffington Post, Meebo, MSNBC, The New York Times, Salesforce.com, Yahoo!, and YouTube. More detailed information will be revealed at Chirp, Twitter’s official developer conference, April 14-15 in San Francisco.

This announcement followed the one from March 1st, when Twitter announced that smaller partners like Ellerdale, Collecta, Kosmix, Scoopler, Twazzup, CrowdEye, and Chainn Search will also have access to data flowing across the Twitter platform, similar to partnership deals previously signed with Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft.

Despite the almost unanimous media frustration (underwhelmed perhaps) during and after the eagerly anticipated Williams' SXSW session due to the prior leak of a rumored advertising platform, the @anywhere platform introduction and the recent deals are nothing short of a monumental progress in the evolution of the web when placed in the right context.

Twitter & Its Ecosystem

Twitter Inc. was founded by Jack Dorsey [#jack], Biz Stone [#biz], and Evan Williams [#ev] in March 2006 as a spin-off from their company Odeo. Twitter was originally created as a microblogging service that enables users to send and read text-based messages of up to 140 characters, known as tweets (the other 20 available characters in SMS were reserved for the username). The tweets were displayed on the author's profile page and delivered to the author's subscribers, known as followers. Users could send and receive tweets via the Twitter website, Short Message Service (SMS) or external applications.

Just four years later, Twitter became one of the hottest web startups on the planet, the top words of 2009; raised U$160 million in cash, was valued at U$1 billion, became profitable in 2009, captured 55 million visits per month, signed over 54 million active users worldwide, rose to rank 12 among the most visited websites in the world, became a leading breaking news medium, and managed a traffic of 50 million tweets per day (600 tweets-per-second, or 1.5 billion tweets per month).

Tweets Per Day,
by Twitter.com [Feb 2010]

The four-digit exponential growth that the company endured over the past year was a constant challenge for the small team of now 150 employees. But a wise selection of open source software, steady use of open standards like OAuth for authentication and its constant nurture of third-party application companies helped Twitter to establish itself as the reference in the microblogging arena, protected by a vast and solid ecosystem around itself.

Twitter Ecosystem,
by Jess3 and Brian Solis [2009]

Twitter evolved over the years and the initial microblogging site has become somehow larger than what its founders envisioned in the first place. Moving away from the original personal status updates to a more immediate information sharing, Twitter has reflected the change recently on its motto question from “What are you doing?” to “What's happening?”. Recently, Twitter was redefined by its co-founder Evan Williams as “an information network that helps people understand what’s going on in the world that they care about”. He also confirmed lately that Twitter will not be sold or merged in the next two years.

In June 2009, Twitter publicly acknowledged that it would reschedule a maintenance upgrade after the US State Department asked to delay the temporary shutdown due to concerns over the service's role as a truly “unique communication medium” by the protesters in Iran. Twitter has been nothing short of a global media phenomenon and used by many in most surprising way.

Adopted by Barack Obama during his campaign [#BarakObama], by the White House [#WhiteHouse], in the classrooms, during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, by restaurants, by celebrities [Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears or Ellen DeGeneres], by large media organizations [CNN, The New York Times, BBC], by public companies [Google, JetBlue Airways, Dell], during emergency crisis [Haiti] and even by an astronaut floating 250 miles above the Earth answering both mundane and scientific questions about living on a space station, Twitter is everywhere.

For the first time ever, more people are finding my blog from Twitter and Facebook referrals than via Google. The total number of people coming to my blog is increasing. The percentage of people who find it via Google is declining. Significantly” — Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks Basketball NBA Franchise, May 15, 2009

All users are not equal on Twitter and a vast majority of them are just followers with a minimum involvement with the platform, but a small minority (less than 1%) is considered to be heavy users with multiple tweets per day, constant connection with the stream of information, and their large follower audience. These loudmouths, although popular, are not the most influential but reflect the new platform's trend that sees popular personalities and companies taking advantage of the immediacy and the emotional distance shrinkage between Tweeter users and them to build a direct relationship, fostering the media buzz around their personal or business brand.

Twitter Users & Traffic,
by NQ Logic & PearAnalytics [Aug 2009]

Originally targeting the tech-savvy business audience, the company’s user demographics has expanded its solid middle-age base (35+ yrs old) to a more young (below 35 yrs old) as well as overall affluent market segment in part due to the high adoption by global celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey and others.

Tweets Content,
by NQ Logic & PearAnalytics [Aug 2009]

Although recent survey showed that most of the information exchanged on Tweeter and its vast ecosystem is pointless babble (referenced as "peripheral awareness" and "social grooming" by some) and public conversational, the Twitter stream of information is growing at a pace rarely seen on the planet web.

But what is most intriguing is the fact that most of the growth has been driven by its third-party applications, forcing Twitter to be a mere receptacle of the tweet data and authentication system, and leaving the relationship management and more lucrative interaction to others companies (Google and Bing for historic search, TweetDeck and Tweetie for navigational user interface).

Twitter Ecosystem Growth,
by John Borthwick [Jan 2010]

A recent survey estimated that the traffic generated by the entire Twitter ecosystem could be as big as 3 to 5 times the traffic measured today on Twitter.com, reinforcing the unique character of openness that the Silicon Valley company has been nurturing since the inception of the service.

Internet Velocity

Twitter is everywhere, growing exponentially, capturing million of instant conversations and becoming an entry point for information exchange. It created a solid ecosystem around itself thanks to its openness, partnerships and initial strategic technology decisions and business orientations.

We are already aware that the internet itself is changing in front of our eyes. After its first decade built around the content creation and distribution, and a second decade around building connections and self promotion, the internet, once just a source of content, evolved to a social and therefore, viral information exchange. Today with Twitter and services alike, the internet is becoming an instantaneous, real-time web, based on the principle of nowness. Everything on the internet is accessible, now, and Twitter is becoming the pulse of the information network on the internet.

The real-time web, against which every web service and company is now being evaluated, has many attributes and concepts that redefine the internet as a whole.
  1. The first and foremost idea is that the internet is moving away from content generation and its almost stable distribution-monetization platform, to a constant and multiple streams of information flow. Twitter Search and Digg Lab for information, and Facebook for social interactions have already redesigned their static user interface pages to a richer dashboard to present in real-time and dynamically what is currently happening.

    Streams will be defined therefore by their direction, flow, throughput rate and velocity and not by the number of users or number of visits anymore. This paradigm shift will impact drastically the online marketing industry that will have to invent new ways of measuring and calculating monetary value for interactions.

  2. The second concept relies on the fact that the streams are a continuous (over)flow of data that need to be [1] real-time, [2] contextual, and [3] multidirectional. By the sheer volume of content being created over the internet and its exponential increase, human attention span in the real-time world will become the bottleneck.

    Even with extensive practice of shifting one’s focus from one stream to another, one can only deal with a certain amount of concurrent streams at a time. To avoid perceptual disengagement from the overload, the new real-time web services will have to firstly, become more contextual and relevant for the user (be it by popularity, trend, personal interests, or social graph), and secondly, create more engaging conversations by letting people use a multidirectional exchange at their choice.

  3. The world of streams is a world of online viral sensations, short attention spans, unexpected trends, of extreme volatility, and immediate fame. It is also becoming a digital world of extremely short-term conversations and short-term thinking. Online real-time conversations are shorter than ever (less than 140 characters today, for now) with little room for extrapolation and argument building.

    But it also requires a constant engagement of all the parties at all times. The asynchronous modus operandi that took us so long to get used to (i.e., email that is relevant and still 'live' a few days later) with is now being replaced by a constant synchronous participation. Users need to be present and always be connected to be part of the real-time conversation under the threat of virtual non-existence. New location-based services such as Twitter Geo Tagging and other multi-communicational tools such as Google Voice are good examples of the acceleration towards the real-time web's synchronous conversations.

  4. The world of streams is a world of crowds and hordes, with all of its benefits and disadvantages. Online traffic will occur in bursts, the same way users will be overflowed by information, infrastructures will be overflowed by users. Managing both information traffic and user traffic will be the challenge of the next decade for the technologists of our world. Surely enough, cloud computing and data center farms will help address the following question: What would you do tomorrow if one million customers show up at your door step?

  5. The world of streams is a world of open standard and open data exchange. The same way that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the real-time web will be as real-time as its weakest refresh. Crowds will move seamlessly from one stream to another to have the latest and most current information. In the world of nowness, closed and proprietary systems will only be the final destination or receptacle, but not be part of the real-time exchange. Closed systems will be challenged by more open ones.

  6. The world of streams will be the detonator for rationalizing and implementing of the semantic web that many experts predict will be the next evolution of the internet. To perform at it optimum pace, the real-time web will need to exchange information as fast as possible. This will only occur the day data will be understood by machine at the speed of light and therefore will have to be rationalized, programmed and manipulated, introducing the concept of Open Data proposed by Sir Timothy John "Tim" Berners-Lee, the inventor of the presentation layer language called HTML (a.k.a. the Father of the Internet).

  7. Finally, the world of streams does not have a business model yet. Neither Facebook, nor Twitter has a solid and sustainable business model, and only previous-generation internet companies and other venture capitalist investors are today sponsoring the creation and growth of the real-time web. But surely, when streams will be strong and steady, at a high rate and high velocity, multidirectional and with deep roots in the internet, the business savvy will invent a way to monetize streams.

Gary Hayes' Social Media Count

The previous era of the internet was mostly about investigating the past. Content (text, image or video) were published like static pages periodically before users could look for them. Later on, search engines such as Google or Bing were indexing the published content to make it accessible. Search engines would index also periodically, and the accessible web was only as fresh as its most recent indexing.

In the world of streams, everything is shifting to the present; and current tools are still limited in their capabilities to store, manage, measure, present, organize or index streams. Twitter is probably the most advanced real-time stream platform we have today.

What’s Twitter Doing in the Real-Time Web?

Twitter has been at the forefront of the online immediacy battle and in the recent months, the company has increased its capacity to lead and show the way to a possible new internet based on more instant interactions.

So let us re-evaluate Twitter's recent developments through the lens of the real-time web frameworks and assumptions above. Twitter has managed to:

  • Outsource to major search engines all Twitter data to be indexed and therefore searchable, thereby avoiding an expensive functionality development and a tremendous amount of CPU storage capacity.

  • Open their platform to third-party companies to be able to develop applications, measure and present data in a factual way that could be monetized later on if necessary.

  • Increase the conversation flow by partnering with large online content providers for the new @anywhere service. The @anywhere functionality on partner sites will trigger and send a Twitter conversation, increasing the volume of information flowing through the real-time platform (throughput rate) and also the traffic to partners' websites (direction). The new @anywhere service is being aimed at publishing sites and media companies, who could be a future revenue source for Twitter for traffic referral.

  • Refocus the platform as a storage capacity to receive tweets coming from anywhere while entering the universal login battle against Google and Facebook Connect.

  • Increase the signal-to-noise ratio through monitoring and indexing the search results so the presented information will be more relevant and useful for users and partners. This yields quality streams, adding more value for everyone, and Twitter will be the ultimate repository for real-time information, "fostering the open exchange of information".

"The speed at which something happens may change its essential nature, and that which moves with speed quickly comes to dominate that which is slower." – "Speed and Politics," an introduction to Dromology by Paul Virilio (1977)

Twitter has entered the real-time web before anyone. It has drastically changed the way people are communicating around the world. Simply, Twitter has forced the entire internet and all users connected to it, communicating through it, consuming from it, to be in the now.

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