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Twitter was the first social-media service that captured my personal interest. Up until I dove into the twitterverse, I had maintained only an academic relationship with likes of Facebook, Delicious and others, spurred mainly by the necessity of understanding such services in relation to my job as a marketer. Since I bit the Twitter apple (or as some might say, drank the cool-aid), I’ve become a believer in and active user of many related and competing products. Twitter, however, remains my favorite for one basic reason, it’s simple. Everybody who participates is basically doing the exact same thing. As a consumer this appeals to me because  this makes it easy to process the incoming steam of content. As a developer this appeals to me because it makes it easier to dream about new ways to harness all the activity.

By contrast Facebook is encumbered by numerous layers of piled-on features. I enjoy the service, because it does a good job of keeping me in touch with people I care about, but I constantly feel like I’m fighting it. Strange notices show up in my inbox from applications that I don’t remember subscribing to, configuration interfaces are numerous and hidden in inconsistent places. I never really feel in control of the thing. It reminds me of MicroSoft Word, which is a great Word processor buried inside a morass of tacked-on features and inconsistent dialog boxes.

I’ve wanted to push the envelope and find ways to derive more and more value from micro-blogging in general, and despite my crush on Twitter, I’m more than willing to entertain alternative services if they can do a better job. While the rivalry between Twitter and Facebook is well established in pop culture (think of it as the web’s version of Mac vs. Windows), the simmering war between Twitter and FriendFeed is more interesting (think of it as the web’s version of Mac vs. Linux).  FriendFeed is a bit like a swiss-army knife for social media, a universal connector between  your various identities be they on Twitter, Facebook, Delicious or whatever. It is smartly acting like a parasite on Twitter’s back allowing users to pull content from and publish content to the more popular service. The value-adds that FriendFeed provides are: sophisticated search and filter options, up-front forums that can be spawned directly from any piece of content, a content endorsement mechanism that can be tapped to aid filtering, special interest groups, and many other features. Friendfeed also offers a nice actively flowing interface that automatically updates content on your page without requiring refreshing. There is no doubt that FriendFeed has a lot to offer and I get the sense that the service is developing the same sort of devout, passionate and evangelical user-base that drove much of Twitter’s early success before the likes of Oprah jumped on that bandwagon. Many quietly harbor the desire to see FriendFeed fulfill the promised social nirvana that they feel Twitter has failed to provide on its own. Most are polite about it though, as they rightly recognize that they need Twitter as a source of new recruits until they reach their own critical mass.

The problem with FriendFeed, though, is that it is not simple. There are so many options that in the short time I’ve spent with it, I can’t help but feel that I’m not getting it yet. It’s obvious to me that they recognize this problem, as they have done a pretty good job of simplifying the interface for people like me who are just getting started. Allowing you to add new components to your personal interface as you discover them, rather than throwing everything at you at once. That, along with the reverential rhetoric from the FriendFeed faithful that it is a fantastic tool for social media power users will keep me going for a while longer. 

Perhaps a more troubling problem for FriendFeed in it’s quest to topple Twitter, is the nagging feeling that I have, that I might be spreading my social capital too thin by supporting my identity on both services. That is to say, it’s more work to follow both services simultaneously. Now, I could just adopt FreindFeed as my sole proxy interface for Twitter. But there are a couple problems. At the moment there isn’t a nice iPhone app dedicated to FriendFeed (that I am aware of), and about 50% of my interaction with Twitter is via my phone. Secondly, I’m frustrated with following links inTwitter posts that lead not to the teased blog article or Youtube video, but instead to the poster’s FriendFeed landing page. FriendFeed uses this page as the staging ground for any discussion that might arise surrounding this post, which is a great idea in one sense. But, in another sense, it’s not terribly different from the linkjacking abuse that we often see in social bookmarking communities like Digg. As a twitter user, I hate these links, which are often masked by the URL shortener. It’s bait and switch and I don’t want to subject my Twitter followers to that. Furthermore, the FreindFeed community is not big enough yet to justify abandoning Tiwtter altogether. This was most recently demonstrated to me when civil unrest was breaking out in San Francisco over the Prop 8 ruling. Twitter was all atwitter with live reports from the scene and FriendFeed was full of, well, links to Twitter.

This week we saw the first glimpse of a new service that might trump all of the above. Google introduce a new communication platform called Wave that hopes to revolutionize the way we interact, perhaps even replacing dinosaurs like email and instant messaging. They even demonstrated a tie-in to Twitter called Twave, but the new platform could provide an opportunity for third parties to get a foothold and compete with Twitter.  The Wave application looks like a jumbled mess, the kind that would make Microsoft proud, but Google is smartly opening up the platform to allow developers to make their own apps for the system. I can’t wait to see what someone with Apple’s design discipline will do with it. We’ll have to wait.

In the mean time, Twitter is growing rapidly and this is a blessing and curse. Today I saw estimates that they may have acquired 32 million users so far, a three-fold increase in the space of about a month  and a half. Who knows if that’s true, but the environment is changing. One need only look at the trending topics to see it. This past week hashtag-centered discussions about frivolous titillating confessions like #3wordsaftersex and #liesgirlstell consistently dominated important discussions like Prop 8 as mentioned, and the trouble in North Korea. It’s no revelation that people are interested in sex, and no surprise that as Twitter grows, it is more accurately reflecting what the public at large values. But I think there are some simple changes to Tiwtter that will help satisfy all aspects of our collective personality. The tricky part about designing such changes it so avoid mucking up the beautiful simplicity that makes Twitter so good. Here is what I would do:

Twitter should add once piece of meta-data to each twitter post. This would describe the nature of the post as (perhaps) one of the following:

  • Personal
  • Editorial
  • News
  • Promotional

I think these descriptors make sense, but there may be other I’m missing at the moment. This could take the form of a drop-down box beside the Text input field. By allowing users to tag their own posts, readers could filter searches and trending topics for the types of content they desire. A reader should be able to set individual filter setting for each user they follow if they choose. That way I could read the smart opinions of a political pundit without bothering to read about the Sunday outing he took with his kids. Likewise, that pundit will feel free to post reports about his personal life without worrying about alienating his professional audience. There is of course no guarantee that posters will label their content appropriately, and no doubt malicious posters will attempt to abuse the system. But those abuses will only hurt the poster in terms of credibility and the number of people that pay attention to their material.

This does make Twitter a little more complex, but I think it is an acceptable trade-off considering the benefit. Twitter certainly has a tricky task ahead of itself.


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