Twitter: Flying Cars or Next Killer App?

... Or How Twitter Ate Google's Lunch

Jack Bellis, 02009-Feb-26 (Getting ready for Y10K)  

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Definition of hyperbole: An obvious and intentional exaggeration, as in "Twitter will be so big it will make the Web look small by comparison."

A recent online story about a surgeon using Twitter during an operation (http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/02/17/twitter.surgery/index.html) prompted a lively discussion among Elsevier’s User-Centered Design department. While Twitter seems compelling for its potential, it’s hard to imagine what to do with these snippets of personal minutia. Where is the value? Another web article tries to answer this question with “140 Health Care Uses For Twitter,” but the 140 items in it look more like ideas than specific activities. And every day we seem to get more reinforcement that there’s something more here than meets the eye.

NY Subway LCD   Twitter is the tip of the coming "microposting" iceberg. Soon every walk of life, every object, every service, will have profuse status data as detailed as this new LCD display on New York City subway cars.
     

The Mindset Shift

The more I pondered the Twitter concept, the more significant I saw the phenomenon becoming. First I noticed that we are constrained in our thinking of Twitter. We currently regard it as conversational chit-chat, or more precisely…

  1. STATUS messages...
  2. about PEOPLE…
  3. KEYED IN on a keyboard (whether computer or phone).

All of these notions are simply what Twitter started as, not what it will become. Imagine when it's not just status about people that is keyed in:

Twitter is already very cell phone enabled. You can easily post from your phone, whether to the whole world or a particular 'follower.' For instance, I noticed a mistake in a book so I thought I'd send a 'tweet' with the details. That is an ad hoc message, idiosyncratic... one-off. But imagine instead all of the input methods above, supported by 'stock' messages on the sending side. You shake your cell phone a certain way, or push a soft-programmed key and a standard message is sent. Next add automated notifications and alerts on the receiving side... the recipient's Twitter account associates that message with an alert behavior of some nature.

One Big Input Network... Ubiquitous Input

Now think of all the cell phones in everyone's pockets as a huge data collection device. For a while now, I've been wondering, with all this technolgy we have and all the cell phones in the world, how my daughter could be alerted when her school bus is one block away, instead of waiting outside on cold winter days. All her friends on the bus have cell phones. Couldn't they just fire off the standard message for their respective stops... "bus picking up at main street" by shaking their cell phone three times? Her Twitter account would be configured to text her with the standard messages and annunciate them, or just use associated ring tones. Whatever.

A limiting factor in these developments will be making input "intervention-less." Everything else is probably trivial even today.

Aggregate Data

And finally, imagine what is possible with this information not on a one-at-a-time basis, but aggregated. With aggregated data you might see, for instance, the fact that 20,000 people just evacuated a high-rise building in Lower Manhattan. Could lives have been saved? We are already seeing that Twitter data is being harvested for marketing information: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7900463.stm.

Here's the complete view of the mindset shift:

Current Mindset of Twitter   Eventual Value
Ad hoc   Standard Messages
Keyed in... fingertips   Automatically sensed, voiced, gestured
People   People, places, things, animals, services
Input via computer web page   Computer, phone and other input systems (embedded devices)
Output is "pulled"   Output is "pushed" by notifications and alerts
Output shows individual transactions   Output of aggregate data, dashboards

Pervasive Data

I noticed recently that New York City subway cars now have a tremendous LCD display inside, with what is essentially 100% detailed status info... the upcoming and past stops, times, connecting routes, and so on. Soon every avenue of life will have this level of detail status. Get ready… or is this just more undelivered "flying cars?" (Hold on a second, my phone is telling me my sandwich is ready at the restaurant across the street.) Continuing the trend in which used-book sales on the web have saved millions of trees while simultaneously lowering prices, this new wave of pervasive status data will strip—I like to say 'harvest' —more and more waste from the physical world. Think empty airline seat, discarded but usable electronics, who knows.

And What Will We Call It? "Micro-Posting"

I've seen Twitter called micro-sharing and micro-blogging. I think 'micro-posting' might be more accurate for its eventual, broader use, but the market usually comes up with the best name. (Except in the case of RSS, which still needs to settle down to just 'Feeds.')

Web Applications Versus Services and Capabilities

Will this all be under Twitter.com's umbrella? Probably not. It's hard to speculate on how much Twitter will get to keep to itself. There's no reason that certain services can't use microposting facilitated by their own databases. And almost certainly, microposting will become a capability that is added to websites or individual pages just like wiki, blog, rate, vote, and comment. They are not media types, just capabilities in a continuum of interactivity options.

Eating Google's Lunch... The Commoditization of Questions

A funny thing happened on the way to Sunnyvale. Twitter ate Google's lunch. Sounds like an episode from Winnie the Pooh in the $100 Billion Wood. I'll explain.

In a great book of essays, "The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-first Century,"
http://www.amazon.com/Next-Fifty-Years-Science-Twenty-first/dp/0375713425 one of the essays makes the point that the value of "answers" is plummeting now that ubiquitous information freely answers all questions. It made the point, "How can there be a value to being smart, if any person can simply 'ask the walls' a question and get the answer?" The result of the premise is that the future belongs to those who ask good questions. Well, I'm not certain I know where that is going, but it does offer a context in which to frame Google and Twitter.

Stay with me now. I heard in a great speech on technology, that each technological revolution is characterized by the precipitous drop in price of some commodity. (Email me if you can help me credit the source.) The way I see it, the next 10 years will be about the commoditization of 'answers.' We are going through it now, as "information wants to be free," with Google leading the charge. And I'm asking if perhaps Twitter will be the place where questions go through the commoditization process?

Continuing this train of thought, Google must be wondering if they've let the internet be stolen right out from under them! Think of that search box in the middle of Google.com's home page... it's the biggest tweet input box ever, and it's been collecting tweets for a decade and not doing anything with them... other than enriching their advertising model and turning search-engine-optimization into the greatest cat-and-mouse game ever. Sure, we use Google for pure "search" activities a lot, but it's also a window into our every move. Where we go to lunch, who we phone, ad infinitum.

And what happens? Some little startup basically takes that box and says "No, we'll put it over here on our little domain. Go back to your databases and your fancy Algorithm with a capital A. We're having too good a time."

Flying Cars?

Will it get as big as I imply? Possibly. We're fond of calling the 2000 web's content 'dynamic' and 'interactive,' compared to 1990. But picture the order of magnitude difference with every object on earth transmitting status.

Will there be valuable applications? Almost certainly. Of course, all novel technologies go through a maturation that I imagine is documented somewhere: they all start as hobbyists obsessions, then start making money as pornography platforms. Not sure after that: trivial and minor social uses, then business, then full-scale betterment of mankind? But when you look at some of the great ideas that have been made real recently, we should expect to see things done with microposting beyond our wildest expectations. It would probably be harder to argue the contrary.

What is RealTimeScience? You'll have to ask Jack Bellis to find out.