The future for Twitter

By February 5, 2009 20 Comments

As I read about the first commercial Twitter spamming tool this morning I am reminded of a mashup* event I attended last week where the future of Twitter was discussed extensively.

My big takeaway from that conversation are that people use Twitter for two very different reasons:

  1. To stay in touch in a small way with what their friends are doing – i.e. to follow their activities – also known as ambient intimacy
  2. As a source of news/content

A single person can, of course, use Twitter for both reasons, and many do, myself included.  My point here is though is that as the service grows and the number of messages rises these different use cases will put different requirements on the system.

Someone at the mashup* event said that they liked Twitter because these days their email box was full and unmanageable.  For those that use Twitter to stay in touch with friends that same problem is on the horizon.  In fact you can see the beginnings of it today, even though Twitter is only just beginning to cross over into the mainstream.  As Alan Patrick pointed out at the event Twitter clients like Tweetdeck are symptomatic of the fact that people are beginning to struggle with message volume.  Tweetdeck (which I use and love) helps handle message volume by allowing users to sort messages into columns.  As Alan also pointed out the logical next extension of this is threaded conversations and groups.  By which point it seems to me that Twitter is starting to look a lot like email – maybe sufficiently distinct and better enough to be successful, but not that different.

Turning to the second use case – content discovery – to scale this the tools you need are more about filtering and search – helping people find the nuggets they want in the increasingly voluminous flow – e.g. Nick Halstead’s Tweetmeme.

I wonder if a single Twitter app can continue to support both these use cases as the service grows.

Now the beauty of Twitter’s open API approach is, of course, that both use cases could flourish supported and encouraged by different third party clients.  Yet at the same time I think for me Twitter would lose a lot of it’s appeal if I wasn’t getting both benefits.

One common answer to this problem is to ‘harvest’ ones friends (strange metaphor this as for me harvesting is usually about digging up and eating…) – but I’m not sure that works as once the service goes mainstream I think it will start to be considered rude to say to people “I’m not going to listen to your messages”.