We Have Only Scratched the Surface of the True Value of Twitter. Here’s What You’re Missing

Posted on Oct 31, 2011 | 73 comments

We Have Only Scratched the Surface of the True Value of Twitter. Here’s What You’re Missing

I have written extensively about Twitter in the past. I still find that many people don’t understand the basics. If you consider yourself a newbie, please check out a group of posts that I’ve done in the past that might make you feel more comfortable with what is unique about Twitter.

In this post I want to talk about a Twitter that I see beyond what is visible to most Twitter users today. Call it “Strategic Twitter.”


LA? Seattle? Chicago?

Before elaborating I’d like to make one small side-note to say that if you want to talk in person about “Strategic Twitter” I will helping to host an event on November 10th in Los Angeles called “teatime” what will feature Ryan Sarver (Twitter’s head of platform) and Jason Costa (works on developer relations) that was organized by my good friend & colleague Adam Lilling (what? you’re not following him? go on, I’ll wait …) and sponsored by Nitu Gulati Pauly (who is VP at the best tech-focused recruiting firm in LA).

The sign up page for the event is here & there is limited availability. It is intended for product & tech people – mostly people who want to build cool stuff on the Twitter platform and it will showcase some really cool stuff that has been built on Twitter. It’s at the Zanuck Theater (Fox Studios) and will be a great event to learn about the direction of the Twitter platform and how people are using it.

I’ll be there the whole night hanging out and trying to meet with cool companies planning to do interesting stuff with the Twitter API.

Oh, and if you’re in Chicago or Seattle you have your home town events, too. Here’s yours: Chicago (Nov 7) Seattle (Nov 9)


Ok, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Here’s three important things to know about Twitter’s future that are more nuanced than “what am I eating for lunch?”

1. Identity 
Who are you on the web? Historically you are your email address. You meet somebody and they want to get in touch with you, you have always given out yourname@company.com. That’s one form of identity. But for many public figures that’s not practical. Think about your local news anchor saying, “if you want to get in touch email me at xxxx.” Sure.

And yet Facebook also hasn’t filled the identity space. The reason it didn’t was that the follower model of Facebook started out as symmetrical, which basically means that if somebody friends you, you needed to friend them back. So again your local news anchor doesn’t exactly want to follow back all of her viewers. Not practical. Let alone for Oprah Winfrey.

One of the biggest innovations of Twitter was asymmetrical follower model in which many people can follow your updates and you don’t have to follow theirs. I wrote about this a couple of years ago here.

So it is now very common for news organizations to announce on the air, “to follow my updates please follow me on Twitter at @myname.  Twitter has become one of our major online identities and that is becoming mainstream in ways that people aren’t really talking about. Nearly every day now I see public figures telling people their Twitter identity in stead of Facebook, email or other forms of identity.

But this really went mainstream with Apple’s iOS5 integration. This is A REALLY BIG DEAL. Why?

Well think of it this way. It’s almost like the web equivalent of Facebook Connect. On the web each website wants you to log in to their website using a proprietary user name and password. But most users don’t want this.

So Facebook Connect was a great way for publishers to get you to log in using Facebook’s system so that they could at least know who you were when you visited and they could try to build features that incorporated your friend graph such as sharing content or knowing the most popular stuff your friends are also reading.

On the iPhone this is Twitter, not Facebook. If you log into Twitter on your iOS device you can suddenly use any app that has integrated with this Apple feature. And any app that doesn’t is myopic. Think about it – if you have all of your customers already signed into Twitter then you have a much better chance that they’ll use your app to publish into their Twitter stream and drive more traffic back to your app.

And as a result of Twitter being your identity on the iPhone it will drive a lot more people to sign up and use Twitter. If you want to see how this works come check out our Nov 10th event in LA and you can see TextPlus demo their iOS5 integration and how they think about the importance of working hand-in-hand with Twitter for their free text messaging apps.

2. Object Communications
The other major thing that will become the most powerful impact Twitter will have on society is “object communications.” 15 years ago when many of us first started discussing the future of the web, the smartest future thinkers about where this would all go would say that people interacting with websites would just scratch the surface of the power of the Internet.

When machines can talk with others machines you will have a truly powerful Internet. Of course we know that this is already happening as web services are now driving significant portions of the Internet and people are driving toward a future Semantic Web.

And while networks of computers now regularly interact with each other, so too is the future of Twitter. Consider some simple examples.

  • Today we find out when commuter trains are late or roads are closed because our friends or local news agencies Tweet them to us. In the future trains will auto tweet and potentially update displays in train stations or airplanes can tell us when they will arrive at the gate in stead of us talking with the uninformed gate representative.
  • DropBox could send out Tweets to users when new documents have been added to a folder they are following if they have subscribed to updates
  • We already know that some bakeries send Tweets when they have fresh cookies.
  • New tickets about to go on sale for your favorite band – Tweet. Stock you’re tracking goes below your purchase price? Tweet. Major congestion on your normal route to work? Tweet.

Yes, I know that many of these things can be Tweeted today but many are manual or done by friends we follow. The future will see more of this automated. Yes, I know a lot of this could just come from existing IT systems and email. But the real-time nature and public availability of the data tells me that Twitter has a better chance than anybody else of being the source of open object-people and open object-object communications.

If you want to come see how Factual is integrating with Twitter APIs make sure to come to our event in LA.

[Update: Stephen Medawar wrote in the comments:

“I would expand your object communication to “two-way object communication”. There could be a causality to content-specific or location-specific tweets (much in the same way some are integrating Twilio).

Example: Maybe I can programmatically change my reservation at a restaurant who’s POS is integrated with the Twitter API. I’m late and on the road…I tweet that I’m late and the reservation is changed by the amount of time the computer thinks it will take for me to get from my tweet location to the restaurant (plus parking).”

Done. Thanks for helping me expand!]

3. Predictive Data
The other thing that isn’t talked about enough in the mainstream media about Twitter is the predictive nature of open Twitter data in and of itself. It should be no surprise why I invested alongside IA Ventures in the big data company DataSift.

I believe that Twitter is becoming the most interesting and predictive dataset in the world and that every large company (and many small ones) will consume the Twitter stream in order to gain insights, determine actions to take and gain competitive advantage.

I know this sounds like hyperbole, but consider:

  • Police forces around the world are now starting to use Twitter to track potential riots and crowd movements
  • Major litigators are now tracking Twitter data to determine likely jury sentiment
  • Hedge fund traders are now consuming real-time Twitter data to figure out trading strategies or determine major news events micro-seconds before other traders
  • Movie studios are evaluating audience reactions to films and adjusting marketing spend based on early customer reactions to films
  • Corporations are monitoring service outages based on user Tweets
  • Companies are monitoring competitor movements
  • VC Delta is scraping websites of VCs and Tweeting when they add new portfolio companies to their websites making it easier to track when other VCs are doing.
  • News organizations are monitoring Twitter to make sure they’re on top of breaking news before their competitors

Know what I call a company in the future who’s not ingesting real-time data feeds to gain competitive advantage? Toast.

Come to our November 10th event and hear awe.sm talk about their Twitter integration and how you can use Twitter analytics to better monitor social media conversion on marketing campaigns.

4. Augmented Data
Finally, while significant value will be delivered to companies who can interpret real-time data, some people are over-looking an important facet of the data that Datasift calls “Augmented Data.”

Let me explain it with a current metaphor – the 2012 US presidential campaign.

Let’s say you’re a political operative who is trying to win a swing state like Florida in the general election. You’ve been tasked with winning South Florida for President Obama against the Republican nominee.

You obviously have your databases of email addresses, phone numbers and Twitter handles of those that have registered for the cause. But of course not everybody has.

So you start monitoring the Twitter stream for people who have geo-location turned on, are currently in South Florida and who are Tweeting things that are considered by a semantic engine to be positive Tweets about Obama. You would obviously consider them friendly and want to engage with them over Twitter.

But what about those not sending Tweets saying, “Yes We Can?”

Well, for starters you could interpret much about users by whom they follow. If a user is following Sean Hannity, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh and is not also following Rachel Maddow, Al Gore and Barack Obama then you can probabilistically surmise they are likely a Republican supporter. But there are equal patterns in which you could infer that they are either a Democrat or are likely to be an independent.

There are other factors you could use to figure out whether they are male or female, old or young, passionate about the war in Afghanistan or likely to vote based on Cuban-American issues. You could figure out whether they are Hispanic based on language analysis or whether they follow Spanish-speaking Twitter handles.

The future of data interpretations will be augmented. We will look at both the steam and the “meta stream.” We will want to augment with: location, demographics, affiliations, authority by subject area, gender, topical interests and a whole lot more.

The most dynamic businesses will use all of this for positive effect. And you can guess where we’ll be talking about this on November 10th with Twitter’s platform team and with some great LA companies that are using the Twitter API to power their businesses.

  • http://www.GroupTweet.com Ryan

    Would love to learn more about the African startups you’re referencing that  utilize SMS and Twitter?   Got any links or more info?

  • http://twitter.com/nzeke Nathan Zeke

    Great post.  The data sets are being built all around us.  Take the software from the movie Eagle Eye and the Jarvis interface from Iron Man. Monopolies of the future will not involve products, but consumers. 

  • Anonymous

    NandiMobile is one company, and here’s a blog post about them: http://blog.meltwater.org/congratulationsI am not sure if they are integrating with Twitter, but I do know that they’re platform utilizes SMS, and because of that, they can easily add Twitter to their product.
    I am not sure if they are integrating with Twitter, but I do know that they’re platform utilizes SMS, and because of that, they can easily add Twitter to their product.

  • http://twitter.com/rasagy Rasagy Sharma

    Great points, here’re my insights on how to implement most points you mentioned in #2:

    To automate anything, you only need access to data. Easier said than done, as data might be available, but not in a form/platform you can use. Some services seem to be helping out in this regard, so I hope to see more open data for people to play with.

    I personally use @ifttt:twitter  (http://www.ifttt.com) to automate a couple of things. It has “channels” for Twitter, Dropbox, Stocks and more (Weather, Calendar, Fb…) Already using it to power  @SmashingUXD:twitter  bot (Tweet when new post) and for tracking my travel expenses (Making a twitter bot that tracks if I’m being overcharged by a cab – happens a lot here in India!)

    Regarding your points:
    Train & Commute Options: Tweet to @XYZCityTrain with a train number & your boarding point – Get an update 15 minutes before it reaches. Problem: The train information should be available. In India, efforts to provide such data publicly have come up only recently (like http://simran.in/ which gives real-time train updates. Works also through sms – Message the train number and get current route etc. Currently under development). I’m guessing such data is available in some countries (Any idea? Available in yours?)
    Dropbox File Bot: Simple, can be done in a minute using ifttt – AND to answer concerns of “cluttering the stream” – Have a different twitter handle/bot to tweet it (So all your followers aren’t updated). For ex, Follow   for updates (Tweets) + resources (Through dropbox). Keep it private for only teams, public for everyone else.
    Cookies: Sounds cool! IF the info is available (Inventory Management software to track cookies?), could be automated easily using ifttt.
    Stock: Already possible using ifttt. Here’re the possibilities: http://www.ifttt.com/recipes/search?q=stock – Just hook Twitter!Glad to see more awareness about such uses of Twitter, and easy to use tools to play with it!

    PS: I’m not associated in any way with ifttt or simran. Just love the idea behind both. :)

  • http://twitter.com/santiagomblanco Santiago Blanco

    Great post! We are experiencing the growht of an excellent tool to know every thing (people likes and senses, objets, locations, etc.). The next 5 years will be great for tools like twitter!

  • Jon

    When you say, “I know this sounds like hyperbole, but consider:…”, are you making this up or is it real?  References?

  • http://twitter.com/varun2010 Varun Shah

    Brilliant Mark. Love the way you present your perspective. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CG5KOCRY675TMUGZI5HRMWMNUI Pradeep

    Good post.  Yes, Twitter is a big deal and it really is just “publish-subscribe”.  That model has existed for more than 25 years now!  With the distribution paradigms getting solidified as we speak, along with visualization metaphors.  You are very right also in speculating that topics of publishing are going to go from “users” to “objects” with well defined semantics. Once they move into that realm, the 140 character limits to posts needs to go away.  The engineering and data management challenges that arise from having to deal with structured publish-sbuscribe are going to be great and Twitter has to invest in sufficient engineering horsepower to deal with that information retrieval and messaging data stream scalability issues that arise.  They’d do well to hire folks from database, search and content management companies of the past.  Twitter’s current timeline model of browsing is suboptimal, and their advertising initiatives are unimaginative.  But the potential is huge, and so are the technical challenges.  Amazing to see the usage and consumer adoption and of course, the brand recognition is incredible.       

  • http://www.digitalle.com digitalle

    Mark, as always a thought provoking piece. However, one problem I see is “tweet overload”, with all these updates coming in, the challenge will be to shift the important tweets such as the road is screwed, from the “eggs for breakfast” stuff that a lot of so-called serious tweeters still dump into their feeds… Some really should know better as have seen some truly excruciating ones recently.

    You cannot spend your life with your face in twitteriffic, so alerting someone to the important “stuff” is a big nut that needs to be cracked.

    On a related note, (disclaimer my company has developed a solution to this problem), there is also still a very long way to go before twitter has overcome it’s security issues in terms of hijacked accounts. I’d be happy to explain more offline.

    Thanks, Rupert

    Rupert Hurley, CEO, digitalle limited, a UK based startup working on some cool stuff in identity authentication. @digitalle

  • http://twitter.com/ivanfarneti Ivan Farneti

    very good post mark, as always. Tomorrow a bunch of us London-based Vcs are meeting Dick Costolo. looking forward to that chat. There is a whole ecosystem brewing around Twitter (and others) trying to make the big unstructured and semi-structured wealth of data “digestible” and “consumable” for businesses. some queries can be worth more if repeated to determine variations, time series, derivatives. some sub-sets of data can be used to monitor different opinions in reactions to different triggering events and predict what may happen at T+1 in UK or wherever in the world. Most of the data is just data and not yet information. there is a new gold mine in the data and metadata and FOAF files behind social networks and real time internet companies. time to go digging!

  • http://twitter.com/the_rob_johnson Rob Johnson

    Great post – I totally agree. I just recently built http://www.identitweet.com because they made everyone in my MBA program take a paper-based personality test and I thought that was ridiculous with the amount of information that’s readily available about people.

  • Dave W Baldwin

    You’re probably right.  The main thing is ‘VoiceTweet’ will be the killer.


  • Dave W Baldwin

    You know I agree Mark.

    On the note of comments regarding Facebook vs. Twitter, everyone needs to understand that the next big thing is true real-time.  It will be in both forms, via the more private assistant and open Twitter. 

    On the note of open, it isn’t really that big a thing.  Let’s say I Tweet the fact I’m covered up helping the robot team at school?  Most readers here wouldn’t even notice it and/or care.  But those who have a laugh knowing what’s going on will read it.

    Then when you take it down to seperating and interlocking subject matter to have a look at, we start arriving at the real definition of real-time.

  • http://twitter.com/DarrylAdie Darryl Adie

    Might have missed it but you don’t seem to mention location explicitly, you could easily use the Google Maps API (or similar) to calculate the journey time from the location of the tweet. 

    The natural next step is then to send an ahead of time to request for a table (check-in?) – “I’m on my way Resturant X now,” and calculate the lead time of arrival, thus removing the need for a table reservation in the first place. This assumes there is a mechanism for the restaurant to respond and say “no can do” in real time.

    The opportunities for Twitter are HUGE.

  • Anonymous

    I particularly liked the example of the bakery tweeting about the cookies being ready, perfect example of  the possibilities of “things” tweeting (in addition to people), this opens up a lot more possibilities in supply chain traceability for example, here is an example, http://gourmetorigins.com/blog/tweeting-cows/,  of some Canadian scientists that created automated twitter acconts for a herd of experimental cows (well cows are not really “things” but is the same concept when it comes to twitter use) 


















  • Emily Moon

    My boss this summer said that he thought Twitter would go away in 5 years because it didn’t really serve a purpose. I of course argued against this, but not as eloquently as this article put it. Great post.

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/114718778524214371963/114718778524214371963/posts kidmercury

    you know there is the viewpoint that apple allowed such deep integration with twitter — instead of fb or goog — because they don’t view twitter as a threat (but fb and goog are). i agree with that viewpoint. 

    google and fb can play the big data game too (especially fb + msft). i’ll take goog over twitter any day of the week and twice on sunday over twitter in that realm. i’ll take startups that focus on being big data companies over twitter too. 

    and of course, think disruptively. who is twitter disrupting? what are the enabling technologies they are using to accomplish this? i don’t see disruptive theory playing out very well with twitter.