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Response to @onthemedia and request to fix Twitter - #fixtwitter

History of pre-Twitter and How Twitter Fixed It


Prior to Twitter, web logs/blogs and RSS were the fix to the world of publishing online for many people. And there also were some proprietary systems like PointCast that filled a niche. Blogs and RSS allowed for people to publish on their own web site in timely ways and then RSS allowed followers and aggregators/syndicators to grab the status of the blog and the quick info about what was new. Unfortunately, they failed to:

  • be timely, as RSS was bandwidth intense, and the "push" or "pull" was often limited to once an hour;
  • be realtime, which sounds like timely, but means that it could be as fast as a conversation, unlike blogs;
  • be concise, as blog posts could be interminable and RSS did not enforce a strict limit on the description of the post;
  • be comprehensive, as practiced, where RSS and blog pages would limit the number of posts to only 5, 10 or 20 usually;
  • be able to be centralized, as aggregators and blogrolls and other systems failed to allow all posts to be found;
  • be human readable, as RSS was usually unreadable for humans that were not HTML/XML prodigies, so few could see the RSS links in their web browsers (except for a few like mine that used a technology to force most browsers to show RSS as a normal web page);
  • be integrated with mobile technology, as SMS was limited generally to 160 characters and APIs with it were novel; 
  • be easy for any non-tech savvy to publish, as blogs and RSS were still hard often hard to stand up and run;
  • be searchable, which is almost impossible without being centralized.
Twitter fixed all of these problems, by centralizing all of this in one site that was simple to use. And after buying, Twitter was very searchable, especially for the "string" of characters called hashtags.
But in fixing the problems, there were some shortcuts that make for the problems we now experience. 

The Features of Twitter

As an excellent niche service to allow mobile text messages (SMS) to be integrated with a blogging or microblogging capability, Twitter was excellent. It combined the ease of a simple form and URL to update and read from. Where RSS failed to be human readable, timely and oddly limited to a few posts and hard to consume, Twitter fixed and surpassed all those. And as a simple web service (with tech friendly APIs), many add on services allowed add on features without having the pain of aggregating that RSS made necessary.
The limitation of the number of characters used also made Twitter as elegant as a haiku for readers and easier to publish and run as a centralized system. Where Google and other search engines could only hope to grab new pages once a day at best from the web and RSS aggregaters once an hour, Twitter could have and index and publish almost instantaneously all of its content. 
Amazingly a few things also happened to Twitter that came from a popular service called that allowed instant searches. With this, Twitter could become the instant messenger that AOL, Yahoo and MSN could only dream about. Using the pound sign at the beginning of a short "string" of characters, now known as the hash tag, people could chat together without knowing the other party's user handle/name or joining a chat room. Quickly, this became a way for conferences to allow audience participation from their in the same auditorium or around the world.

The Architecture of Twitter

Things you may not realize about Twitter: 
  • Usernames have 15/20 character limits;
  • Each post on Twitter has its own URL/ web page (example);
  • The URL's that Twitter creates are, essentially, well structured and permanent (see the self-evident structure of my post's URL
  • #hashtags were an ad hoc system created to allow for ad hoc conversations, (at one point NPR staffers tried to buck the hashtag's pound sign),
  • Twitter is the main reason for the strange creature known as the short URL/redirect URL to allow for a web link/URL in much less than 140 characters;
  • to be useful, everyone has to use it (ok, almost everyone that matters).
On Twitter, everyone that publishes must have a username(s) which must be picked from the limited world of Twitter usernames. You can not use a domain name that you registered for a small fortune (#identity). You rely on the web site Twitter for your content to be available which is a very different world from hosting contracts (#publish). Your right to publish is not just limited to 140 characters

 and the Fail Whale

  • Who owns your identity on Twitter-Twitter does
  • Verified account? Really? An authentication nightmare. Only for a subset of all Twitter users. And then it is fairly opaque, unverifiable and non-regulated process compared with the trademark or domain system.
  • @username should not be confused with identity, but is as you may have a different user name on another service/site than Twitter (reason I open up accounts with "citizencontact" early and often on up and coming systems)
  • All eggs in one basket- Twitter goes down and so does your content and everyone elses.
  • The short URL's shortcomings. Redirects are bad on so many levels,
    •  often use country codes that are sort of under the control of the country, like .ly for Libya (which was a "bit" of a problem for some during the recent war in Libya).
    • often redirects can not be updated if the original page moves.
    • often redirects are outside the control of the person using it,
    • harder to see if the it has been hijacked or is misdirecting, 
    • and is never the actual URL.
  • The non-standard standards for microblogging and APIs mean that your content has limits for use that is set by Twitter, not your organization.
  • who owns the content and who controls the content is an uneasy balance with Twitter the corporation. Access control is controlled by Twitter and meshing your organizations access control is not obvious. This is especially true for organizations that allow for spontaneous staff or individual commenting. Is it the person with the Twitter password to org's main account? Danger Will Robinson!
  • Taxonomy vs. folksonomy- the freedom of hash tags (or plain tags for blogs) allows for spontaneous and free usage. However, it is not well suited for control or longevity. RDF, ontologies, official taxonomies, moderated directories (e.g. Yahoo aka Yet Another Hierarchical Ontological Organization), Dublin Core and a myriad of other standards/systems can help with more considered web published documents.
  • and how hashtags and tags are really search URLs that usually only span one site (which in the case of Twitter is enormous)
First, corporations can limit speech by contracts, beyond most control of the US's restriction on government's limits on restriction of speech and press. Also, various jurisdictions have the power to impinge on multinational corporations versus and individual blogger in a single country.
Competition (like AOL IM, a captured audience) means that over reliance on an external service that is not under the control or without very strong contractual obligations may be a mistake.
  • Although permanence is not guaranteed for any online system, there is no guarantee that one day any account or even the entire service might disappear. And unless you have a copy (thanks cloud backup services), your content is gone.

Solution within Twitter Depends on Outside of Twitter

As an organization can create its own identity through trademarks and domain registration (which also depends on trademarks, in part). However, Twitter forces all of us to have a separate Twitter identity that it tightly controls through a TOS (terms of service). And it allows for its own form of authentication for a subset of its users which is again under its own control.
Possible #identity fixes
  • people allowed to use the domain system for their user id's/names. This has been possible for Google Apps and some Microsoft systems for awhile. For example, compare:
    • now,
    • better as,
    • or even better,
  • Regardless of the location/domain of the Twitter site, always list the actual URL of any Twitter accounts on the home page or about page of the organization or individual.
And then there is authentication and access control. Generally an organization of any significant size would have an online and offline system of authentication from identity badges to log ons, etc. So if a person wanted to post on the organization's web site, there might be tight control of over who can draft, edit and publish content and how the person logs into that system.  

The Real Answer

Organizations and individuals must realize that Twitter is only an adjunct to their online presence, and one that they can never control adequately. Every identity, publishing of content must be published first or simultaneously on a site fully under the control of the publisher.
Facebook and other systems do allow for editing/fixing/deleting posts, but without total control and therefore full responsibility to the organization that is publishing, there can be no fix that is adequate that can be contained solely on Twitter.
But there is an answer:
First, there is an original post on a site controlled by the person or organization. Then that information is 
copied or syndicated out to Twitter and other sites with a link back to the original post (aka citation).
Second, if there is any change, the organization can make the change on their own site. Consumers of the copied version on Twitter, tweets and retweets, can always check the authoritative version. Also, if their is a technical standard for posting the original such that it can be automatically queried to see if there are any changes, then Twitter and other sites or applications (mobile apps, browser extensions, etc.) can flag any differences. 
Take the AP Twitter feed. If AP had an original story on their site with a link back to an official page, then the discrepancy would have been obvious and immediate. And automated services could have been programmed to check both sources to confirm the validity.
When Twitter is used as a chat system, the answer is trickier, but then the reliance on it as verifiable would be low.
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