I was asked recently to take a look at microblogging and suggest improvements to Twitter.  First off…

Why Twitter?

It’s a difficult question to answer, even for those who do it regularly.  You start off tepidly following your in-the-know co-worker and soon you are fanatically telling your 513 followers that you are:

Recently the NYTimes Magazine had a great article Brave New World of Digital Intimacy, which describes the growth, stigmas and motivations of microbloggers:

Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness.” It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye…

The growth of ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme — the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world…

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.

The article continues to describe how these short updates allow you strengthen your relationship with loose acquaintances.  When that cute friend of a friend you once met at a party posts pictures of their trip to Buenos Aires, or that guy you met at a conference starts ripping apart the Mets bullpen, they are essentially reminding you they exist and offering you an opportunity to connect.  Microblogging also provides an opportunity for following breaking news, a targeted audience for marketing your product, and (as opposed to blogging) requires little to no commitment.

Problems with Microblogging

Though Facebook still dominates (38.2 million unique visitors in August vs. 2.3 million for Twitter) Twitter is blowing up.  I will never, ever, forget, the reason Twitter is so successful is because of it’s open API.  Twitter’s popularity has grown because it has allowed 3rd party developers to build a whole world of enhancements to its core services.  At first, finding ways to improve seemed like an impossible task.  My initial thoughts about geographical, social and keyword visualization was already done.  So was any enhancements to messaging attachments including, events, pictures and videos (a la Facebook Wall).

Rather then try to identify new features that Twitter could add, I took a step back and tried to identify the problems with their core service.  When you first join Twitter, it’s not fun.  You can follow the 5 people you actually know and search for the people you want to know (i.e. Henry Rollins, Kevin Rose), but you still aren’t involved/committed in the Twitterverse.  Then there’s the reverse: Barack Obama is following 83k people.  Given his busy schedule, how can he slice and dice all the updates he receives to, for example, reach out to all the Hillary supporters in NY who recently pledged allegience to Palin?  Problem #1:  How can you quickly find and engage in conversations around topics you are interested in?

Ok, I’ll be honest, some of my “virtual” friends I don’t really like.  I’m not sure why I agreed to your Facebook friend request but I don’t want to receive any more emails inviting me to your poetry reading and I’m too lazy to defriend you.  On the other hand, when my friend gets arrested I want a text message asap.  Problem #2:  How can you identify which notifications are important and send/receive them in the appropriate method and frequency?

Part 2 of this article will discuss the solutions to the problems above: special interest and contact groups.

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