Subject-oriented Tweeting

twitterMuch of the Web 2.0 phenomenon has featured applications which are “people-centered.” Ning, Facebook, Twitter and others feature interfaces which center around individuals, and branch out from there. I’ve written in this space before about my concerns that people-centered interfaces present some unfortunate limits to application utility, so it will unlikely surprise anyone that I’m deeply interested in how people find ways to work around these limitations.

I watched Evan Williams of Twitter give his TED talk recently, and was struck by how this piece of the puzzle has evolved.

Twitter started life as a way for people to broadcast to people who are interested in them the answer to the question “what are you doing?”

Thousands flocked to this little app, sharing with their public answers like “Eating breakfast,” “attending lecture,” “procrastinating.”

An early critique of this service was that it commanded attention to the trivial – there are very few people in the world whose breakfast-eating habits most of us could care about at all. I have stopped following people who clearly are mostly posting updates with their most intimate friends as their primary audience, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Early on, it became clear that for those using twitter as a personal account broadcasting to the entire audience of followers is not completely satisfactory. Broadcasting is nice, but people like to have conversations with each other. Users developed the “@” convention, by which they could direct their statements to other users. Latecomers to twitter sometimes think the “@” makes for private communication – it does not, it just signals when there is a particular target for a comment. But that’s useful, not just for the target, but for the rest of us who might otherwise wonder why a message doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.

Along came Summize, which created a searchable database of all tweets (and was later acquired by Twitter.) Search adds a vast new dimension of usability to all this seemingly trivial information – as the shoe company Zappos has famously demonstrated by searching for tweets which express dissatisfaction with their products or service and contacting those customers directly.

What I find really interesting is the user base response to a search interface which is represented by the “hash tag”. Now that we have search in twitter, users have developed a folksonomy of these tags, permitting the gathering of all tweets around a subject, be that gasoline availability in Atlanta or reviews of a lecture.

Yes, people are fascinated with each other. And they like to talk about themselves. But it’s very hard to sustain a conversation, let alone a relationship, around self-reportage. We like to observe the wider world and make sense of it with one another. My bet is that it is this capacity to search on subjects of interest, and find others who share those interests, will prove to be critical to twitter’s growth and ultimate sustainability. Though it seems most folks will find that they’ll want to continue those conversations in venues which permit more than 140 characters to a single expression, which is why we’ll keep seeing tweets with those tiny and url links to where the discussion is really happening!