In another post about Twitter I wrote extensively about the implications of this service from a behavioral perspective. It seems that I’m quite in a “twitter mood” lately since I’m writing another post so close to the first one and I’m planning another one for the upcoming days. Right now I would like to share something more technical about this.
It’s about an attempt to make Twitter even sharper and thinner, by using some sort of taxonomy, or in plain english, a method of grouping together posts by putting “labels” on them. Twitter already has a max limit of 140 characters for each post, and chances for this to grow up are likely to be zero. At least for now. So, in order to increase the readability of the tweets, all work must be done “inside” this 140 characters limit. And the way they’re trying to this is by using some extremely scaled down mark-up language.
They’re called hashtags and they are a way of identifying zones of related content. For instance, if you’re going to tweet a lot about raw food, you can insert somewhere into the tweet something like this “#rawfood”. The “#” sign will have the role to identify the string after it as a marker. Everything with a “#” in front will actually become a label. So every time you will be tweeting about raw food, you will group your tweets into a larger category of possibly related tweets. If somebody else will tweet about the same things and they’ll use the same marker, your tweets will be grouped together.
Using Hashtags Implications
First of all, there will be less room for the actual information. Every hashtag will eat some space out of the 140 characters, leaving less space for the original content. Chances are that your content could be grouped in more than one category, or marker and you’ll be inclined to use more than one hashtag in your tweet. If a consistent API would be provided for working with those hashtags – and chances are that there will be some hooks sooner than we think – then a lot of applications would be using that. Turning Twitter into a searchable catalog is just around the corner. There is a great potential for advertisers and even for people who are trying to promote their blogs or products. It would be the easiest way to direct your tweet to the intended category of readers.
I can think of sites which will be presenting twitter content to users only by filtering upon the most relevant tags. This is already happening with hashtags.org. They have a timeline of recent hashtags and a nice graph to show the usage of that specific hashtag in time. But this is only the beginning. You can do whatever you like with this type of hook, you can take the content of Twitter and flip it upside down if you want. You can create a directory of hashtags and present them in form of a tag cloud. Happened before in the blogosphere and it proved to be beneficial for a while.
Pushing this way too far, you could even buy one hahstag – if Twitter will ever want to monetize the billions of tweets – and couple your advertising to that hashtag, one way or another. Displaying a banner next to it, making a link out of it, whatever. But hastags could be a very clever way to bring in advertisers and still keep the Twitter spirit free.
Twitter is to respond to quite a simple question: “What are you doing?”. If you need tags for that, it could become complicated. And if it’s complicated it becomes a roar, not a tweet. There will be much more noise and Twitter is so successful because of the limitations of their features, not because of the bloatware. Semantically speaking the message will be richer but also much noisier.
Another serious limitation would be the balance between the actual content and the tags. If you can only write 140 characters (out of which 10-20 are consumed by the name of the other tweeter in case of conversations) how many tags can you put on it? 70 characters of tags? 100 characters? 140 characters? The very limitation of the framework to only 140 characters could be a serious drawback for the hashtags adoption.
Adding tags could be cumbersome but if you think contexts instead of tags, things can change. Accept the fact that you’re already slicing up your life in several contexts, regardless of your twitter usage. You can tweet from your office, from home or from your phone. Suppose you can tweet even from your travels. And each tweet has a different relevance based on this context. I think there are people who would like to read only office tweets or only travel tweets. That makes sense to me. Using tags for contexts will work.
Not to mention the implication from a GTD perspective. Surround your tweets by contexts, GTD style and you will turn Twitter in the biggest GTD online application ever. Huge potential for team management or ad-hoc meetings. For creating location-based services or for segmenting the “follow” process based on the contexts (you can follow Jim, but only his office tweets, or James can only let you see his travel tweets).
Grouping With Hashtags
It would also be interesting to share contexts between you and your colleagues. Or your family. Or your friends. By using hashtags you can in fact create groups. Or you can just create groups regardless of your contexts. Just start a community of #rawfood and a community of #technews. Having hastags to identify groups of people with common interests is one of the easiest way to bring in more meaning to twitter and still keeping the bloatware away.
The same filtering mechanism as in contexts can be applied to groups, only in this case you can slice your tweeting experience in a much more targeted way. You can have a group of friends, and a group of colleagues, or you can have only the family members. All your tweets will be channeled according to your choices to different groups, deifned by your hastags. And that kind of grouping will sound extremely appealing to advertisers also. Self-generated communities based only on hashtags could be something that I’d like to see on twitter.
Acceptance of Hashtags
At this time hashtags are experimental only. I do use a hashatg to some of my tweets and this is indeed ‘#rawfood’. It is meant to share my experiences with my raw food diet, of course. I don’t know yet how it will be used, what tools will use to group my tweets based on this, I just go with the flow on this one.
I think the acceptance of hashtags, despite some extremely interesting advatages will be quite slow. One thing to do ASAP will be to define the exact grammar for that and the most important thing here will be the location of hashtag, inside or outside the tweet. There’s much to discuss on this one, I’m sure. And another very important thing will be to build this whole tagging mechanism in a spam-free way. Hashtags could be easily hijacked – and I already saw some examples on hashtags.org.
All in all, I find this very exciting and not only from a programmer point of view. The way we shape our communication will hugely affect the way we shape our entire lives.