Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Is the concept of microblogging scalable?

by Christoph Schmaltz

It seems that there are only two topics people talk about these days . One is the economic turmoil and the other is the microblogging service Twitter. While there is unanimous consent that we are facing one of the worst economic situations after WWII, there is a heated debate going on about the usefulness of Twitter. Some simply love it while others can’t make sense of it viewing it as time-wasting and geeks’ new toy.

Despite the sarcasm of its numerous critics Twitter showed an impressive growth rate of 900% in the last year, and that’s only the usage of twitter.com. Double that traffic comes through the APIs, thus 3rd party applications. Some even suggested that Twitter could go mainstream soon, without actually defining what numbers needed to be reached to justify that statement.  

Fact is, microblogging is not simply a super cool form of communication (a la SMS speak of teenagers but for 18+ (average Tweeter is 31!)). It fills a real need for almost realtime communication. If you want to know what people are paying attention to at the moment, you use the Twitter search instead of Google. Next time a plane touches down on the Hudson River make sure you are watching your Twitter stream instead of waiting for images to appear on CNN. So, microblogging will not go away. Twitter could potentially disappear, but at the moment that seems rather unlikely, especially since Pownce (talent) was recently aquired by Six Apart and Google couldn’t figure out how to make Jaiku work and in the end giving the code base to the community.

Let’s assume for a minute that Twitter will continue to grow at a phenomenal rate. You can only speculate on the number of current users, since the founders do not disclose the exact number. Jeremiah Owyang suggested something between 4 – 6 million users, up from 0.5 million in January 08. This would mean at the end of the year we could potentially see a whopping 45 million users on Twitter. (I will hold it like Winston Churchill and advise you that you shouldn’t trust any statistic that you didn’t forge yourself. So, please don’t quote me on this number!)

What I am trying to understand is if microblogging as it stands at the moment is actually scalable, not in terms of technology but behavior and usage. The biggest question mark I have is around the @ messages. Twitter was called superior to Email because you would only receive updates from people you choose to follow. Well, yes and no. This is certainly true for your overall friends update stream and Direct Messages. However, if you haven’t activated the setting ‘show me only @ messages from people I follow’, anyone can send you an @ message. There are people on Twitter that have thousands of followers and I assume they receive hundreds of @ messages. I have no clue how they cope with it, but I believe only few of us would put up with such flurry of messages. And how long will it take until someone creates a bot that listens to specific keywords and sends out @ messages to the people that used those keywords? Imagine you send out three tweets and receive nine spam @ messages. That may not seem severe but I think you get the idea. So, is the @ message functionality doomed once Twitter grows even more popular?

Furthermore, Twitter applications will need to becomemuch smarter to be still practical once it does hit mainstream. Forexample, I am thinking of the dozens of RTs, which go unfiltered at themoment. Threaded replies (yes, I do have the Greasemonkey script installed, but I am mostly using Tweetdeck) would make life much easier, especially if someone responds to a tweet a day later and you have forgotten about the original tweet. If you have a conversation with two people it would be great to simply reply to the thread and it goes automatically to both recipients. Or would that open the door to spamming and we would see a CC functionality in disguise?

Abuse could become a significant issue for Twitter. We have seen that already happening, when Twitter accounts of high-profile people were hacked and sent out spam messages. Jeremiah Owyang fell vicitm to another spam spoof a couple of days ago, in which supposingly a bot created various Twitter accounts just changing one letter of his account and following thousands of people. Twitter is already plagued with spam followers, which is nothing serious but simply annoying. In the future another nuisance could be that spam twitter accounts are created en masse sending out messages to each other using specific keywords or hashtags. The more there are the more likely it is that the Twitter Search will be polluted with those messages.

Openness can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. I am very curious to see how our behavior and usage will evolve with the growing popularity of microblogging and how technology will cater for those sorts of changes. Maybe I am just overly concerned and microblogging does scale. That’s for you to decide. I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

Oh, and I am @christoph by the way

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5 Responses to Is the concept of microblogging scalable?

  1. By Carlo Pecchia on February 20, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Thanks for the interesting post.
    In my opinion microblogging DOES scale, right now and in the near future. A simple “proof” of that is the emerging of 3rd party tools that can “save us” of using twitter directly.
    In enterprise side too, I guess usage of microblogging adoption will soar. At least internally (that could be useful with SMS…).

  2. By Luke Barking on February 20, 2009 at 11:27 am

    “While there is unanimous consent that we are facing one of the worst economic situations after WWII, there is a heated debate going on about the usefulness of Twitter.”
    Maybe in your world Christoph, maybe in your world
    #sigh

  3. By Dan J on February 21, 2009 at 8:52 am

    IMO microblogging will scale more towards enterprise side for quick and short internal communications. On the abuse front I see Twitter is being used as Link Popularity Tool by most of the users, to such an extent that they don’t care about the audience anymore. :)

  4. By Christoph Schmaltz on March 2, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    Carlo, it’s true that 3rd party applications are building a social layer on top of Twitter giving end-users the choice on how they access the underlying infrastructure. Features are different but concepts are the same (e.g. friends stream, @messages, DM, search). And I am primarily concerned about the concepts of @messages and persistent search.
    I agree with you and Dan that microblogging has a big role to play in organizations. I am wondering though if the @ functionality will be abused just like it is the case with the cc functionality of email nowadays.
    Ross Mayfield, president of Socialtext, wrote a very similar blog post ‘Mourning the loss of Twitter. Well worth a read!
    Yesterday I stumbled upon a post about how Twitter can be improved. I am sure that some of those suggestions will be implemented soon.

  5. By Susan Scrupski on March 2, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    It’s like I’ve said before; the trouble with social media is… *people.* What starts out as a fantastic medium for rational, intelligent, good-intentioned kindred souls to communicate and share invariably falls victim to the abuses of the least among us who would game it for commercial or egotistical purposes.
    Every time I pick up the phone and hear, “The warranty on your new vehicle is about to run out…” I’m reminded of how not technology, but people have let me down.
    As far as @replies… I get a lot of them, but I enjoy them. I respond to most of them and because I don’t auto-follow back, it gives me the oppty to bring new voices into my social village. I add many of the folks I “talk” to via @replies.
    I’m guessing two “Twitters” will emerge over time in some form. Twitter, for those of us who use it authentically as is, and Tw@tter, which will just be a mess, but possibly useful to someone. (Similar to MySpace.)