The creators of Twitter have admitted that they are still learning about how people use their service. It seems that they have learned some important lessons, because they are in the process of adding several important new features to Twitter that should significantly improve the user experience and expand functionality.
The first big addition is the inclusion of lists into both twitter.com and the Twitter API. This is a simple concept, but will help a lot with trying to manage the often-overwhelming flow of information that results when you begin following more than 50-100 people (depending on how compulsively you check for updates). The basic idea is that you'll be able to organize the people you follow into lists, publically visible by default, allowing you to categorize and prioritize your contacts, and helping other users sift through them to find people they may be interested in following. It's also great news that this will be built into the API, because like many Twitter users, I'd much rather interact with the service through a third-party application like TweetDeck, Twhirl, or Tweetie than through twitter.com.
Another key improvement to the API is the addition of geolocation. Of course, there are several Twitter services that already support geolocation, but with the addition of this feature into the Twitter API, it is likely to take off in a much bigger way. I've written before about location-based services, but the main problem with many of them is that not that many people use them. Not all that many of my friends use Twitter, either, but way more than Loopt or Foursquare, for example. And location awareness seems like a natural for Twitter, which is very often used on mobile devices.
Beyond the obvious boons, like the ability to see where your friends are tweeting from at any given moment, this will also open up some other interesting possibilities. For example, see the new app Buzzd, which just hit the app store recently. As TechCrunch explains, Buzzd
will bring up a list of venues close to you that are currently popular based on people talking about them on Twitter and Buzzd. It also uses some location data pulled from Twitter. Right now, that data is pulled from users’s Twitter profiles, so it is imprecise, but with the Geolocation API... that will soon change.
There are endless other possibilities... for example, you could map chatter about political candidates in certain areas. Once location-tagging becomes more widespread, these kinds of applications will become increasingly useful in reality, and not just as fun tech demos.
There have been a few big developments in social media space recently, particularly with regards to Facebook, the net's largest social media player. Though Twitter continues to receive a ton of hype and attention, and has been changing the techie world in intriguing ways (being able to read real-time reactions to the speakers at PDF and Netroots Nation has really changed the dynamic of these conferences), Facebook actually grew twice as fast as Twitter last month, and maintains a very substantial lead in total users.
However, not content to rest on its laurels, Facebook acquired FriendFeed last week. FriendFeed is a popular service among the tech-savvy that combines all of your social media presences into one - Facebook, Twitter, Google, Tumblr, etc. (it supports at total of 58 different services). Of particular interest is FriendFeed's ability to integrate with Google Reader's "share" feature, which would be very useful for sharing news stories on Facebook. There are also several other advantages FriendFeed has over Facebook right now. TechCrunch writes of the acquisition,
...it’s clearly a good match. Over the last year or so, Facebook has “borrowed” quite a few features that FriendFeed popularized, including the ‘Like’ feature and an emphasis on real-time news updates.
Obviously Facebook has already built out some of FriendFeed’s functionality so there is some overlap, but there are still numerous ways FriendFeed beats out Facebook’s News Feed setup. One of these is the way stories are ‘floated’ to the top as new users comment on them. And FriendFeed’s system is truly real-time, unlike Facebook’s feed which users have to manually refresh.
I think this was a very smart move on Facebook's part, and could go a long way to improving their service. The second big move they made was to partner with the Huffington Post, the internet's most popular news source, to create a new service called "Huffington Post Social." As Ms. Huffington herself explains, HuffPo Social is
...a collaboration with Facebook that connects HuffPost users to their Facebook friends, the news they are reading, and the stories they are commenting on.
When you sign up for it, HuffPost Social News finds your Facebook friends who are also reading HuffPost and links you together on our site so you can dive deeper into the stories you like best. (But don't worry, you'll still have complete control over what stories and comments are shared with your friends, as well as what goes on your Facebook wall, and into your friends' news feeds.)
I like the idea of integrating comments on the actual story with the social networking experience - reader comments have become an important component of the new news media, so it makes sense to try and highlight this interactivity.
Finally, Facebook just announced today yesterday that Pages will now have the ability to automatically publish to Twitter. As the New York Times said of the move,
Bands, companies, non profit organization and celebrities are likely to benefit from this new feature as their updates will be more widely distributed and Twitter followers are likely to retweet and redirect new audiences to Facebook Pages.
This is a very convenient feature, and it's heartening to see that Facebook may be starting to see their relationship to Twitter as complimentary instead of adversarial. The change is also well-implemented; it's easy to use, and administrators can control what aspects of their Page get pushed to their Twitter feed, and which Twitter account is linked to each Page.
The new media ecosystem has quickly become very complex, so it's good to see confluences and collaborations that will actually make the social networking experience more intuitive and powerful. In the past, I've often felt that Facebook tends to make things worse when it makes changes, but I'm behind these decisions. Can check out HuffPo Social and the Facebook Pages Twitter feed yourself and let me know what you think, and keep an eye out for what they decide to do with FriendFeed.
And of course, if all of this social networking stuff has you completely bewildered, make sure to check out our NPI Paper, Leverage Social Networks, to get up to speed.
Thanks to everyone who participated in our wonderful event today, Twitter, Iran and More: Impressions from the Frontlines of the Global Media Revolution with Nico Pitney, Eric Jaye and Theo Yedinsky. We had a packed house and more than a 1,000 people watching live online, our most viewed on-line event in the recent history of NDN.
For those wanting to watch it again, or refer others to it, look back here in the next few days for a full video of the event.
A single global communications network, composed of Internet, mobile, SMS, cable and satellite technology, is rapidly tying the world's people together as never before. The core premise of this paper is that the emergence of this network is one of the seminal events of the early 21st century. Increasingly, the world's commerce, finance, communications, media and information are flowing through this network. Half of the world's 6 billion people are now connected to this network, many through powerful and inexpensive mobile phones. Each year more of the world's people become connected to the network, its bandwidth increases, and its use becomes more integrated into all that we do.
Connectivity to this network, and the ability to master it once on, has become an essential part of life in the 21st century, and a key to opportunity, success and fulfillment for the people of the world.
We believe it should be a core priority of the United States to ensure that all the world's people have access to this global network and have the tools to use it for their own life success. There is no way any longer to imagine free societies without the freedom of commerce, expression, and community, which this global network can bring. Bringing this network to all, keeping it free and open and helping people master its use must be one of the highest priorities of those in power in the coming years.
This comes from a paper Alec Ross and I wrote in 2007, A Laptop in Every Backpack, and still, I believe, speaks to the remarkable moment in history we are all watching unfold.
Hope you will join us either at the NDN office or over the web for what is going to be one of our more interesting events of the year - a discussion with three people on the frontlines of the global media revolution. Eric Jaye and Theo Yedinsky will be talking about the wildly innovative ways the Gavin Newsom for Governor campaign is currently using new media, particularly twitter. They will be followed by Nico Pitney, of the Huffington Post, who has been at the very center of reporting on, and interpreting the extraordinary events in Iran these past few weeks.
To learn more or to rsvp visit here, and I hope to see you later today! It is going to one of our better events of the year.
Twitter's final impact on Iran’s election protests remains in dispute. Andrew Sullivan first talked it up about a month ago. Various academics, including Harvard's John Palfrey, have since gently talked it down again, pointing out that the service has limitations as a truly revolutionary technology: its format is too brief to be meaningful, it's too easily censored (when the regime wakes up to its existence), and it's only used by a tiny minority. Twitter probably played some part in organising the protests: 2,024,166 tweets in 18 days surely had an effect, even if most came from outside Iran. But it became the story because of its novelty, not its utility—it was a technology many people in the west had only just heard of—and became it, in turn, was a useful way of telling the revolt's story.
In one sense this didn't matter. Increasing access to free media is an important part of the broader story of "the rise of the rest" which will play as background music throughout Obama's presidency. Twitter told that story in the context of Iran. But a number of dangers still lurk. The most obvious is that we associate new media with freedoms. An obvious counter-example over the last week has come from China, following last week's uighur riots. The west worries the Uighurs are unjustly treated, but so i'm told even when one takes into account that truly liberal voices aren't encouraged, the vast majority of China's online voices thinks the government hasn't punished the Uighurs enough. Free expression tends to go hand in hand with political freedom, but it's only a general rule.
Just as dangerous would be to expect a new technology, like Twitter, to accompany along with each protest and revolt. Often the most important democratic technologies, and the ones that the west can do most to spread, are the most obvious. Take Pakistan, which I visited a few months back. The country has dropped off the agenda a bit for the last month, pushed off first by Iran, then China, then Obama's Russia visit, and now by fighting in Afghanistan. But it remains America's geo-strategic priority. And the opinions of its people — do they support the Taliban, how critical they are of the United States, how angry they are about the latest drone strikes — will likely be more important to US foreign policy over the next 12 months than any other single population on earth.
Pakistan doesn't seem to have taken to Twitter. The army's violent retaking of the Swat valley last month went entirely uninterrupted by short messages, or news stories with blue birds. And while its blogging community has some influence, its suffers many of the limitations as newspapers in a country where only half the population can read, and many fewer have internet access. But what Pakistan does have is television; a massive explosion in domestic television channels, going from only 1 station about a decade ago to more than 100 today.
The channels are free of government control, increasingly professional, and hugely politically influential. Most are run in Pakistan (although some are based in Dubai), but they broadcast to Pakistanis in the US, and the UK. They have broken social taboos on everything from religious talk shows, to dating and marriage—while also playing a big role in recent pro-democracy protests. Without anyone really noticing in the west these channels (and their largely liberal, western-educated owners) have been influential in pushing Pakistan public opinion against the Taliban over the last couple of months. And most Pakistanis watch TV news - in the tens of millions. It's an old technology, but it's by far the most important way of expressing the aspirations of Pakistan's people. With luck, someone might even Twitter about it during tomorrow's discussion.
It's been a very busy week on the new tools front. On Monday, I wrote about "Social Media and the Iran Protests." On Tuesday, I wrote about how internet users around the world were hacking Iranian government sites, providing mirror proxies for Iranian activists, and even changing their locations to "Tehran" in a move straight out of "Sparticus."
Since then, the new-media blitz in Iran has only continued to accelerate. As foreign reporters leave the country in droves, citizen journalists there are taking matters into their own hands, uploading videos of beatings and shootings to YouTube and giving real-time first-hand accounts and organizing directions on Twitter.
These services, realizing how politically consequential they have now become, responded well to the situation. Twitter, heeding the pleas of many of its users and even the State Department, put off a critical scheduled update that would have interrupted service. YouTube made exceptions to its policy of banning violent material. From the New York Times:
“In general, we do not allow graphic or gratuitous violence on YouTube,” the company said in a statement. “However, we make exceptions for videos that have educational, documentary, or scientific value. The limitations being placed on mainstream media reporting from within Iran make it even more important that citizens in Iran be able to use YouTube to capture their experiences for the world to see.”
Google, which owns YouTube, also just added Farsi (Persian) to its translator service, stating that they "hope that this tool will improve access to information in Iran and outside." Over half of Google's employees were born in other countries, which may help to explain their particular sensitivity on this issue. Finally, although the Iranian government has blocked Facebook, the social networking service added a Persian version today.
On Twitter, people around the world continue their outpouring of support - #iranelection is still the top topic, and a great deal of Twitter users (myself included) have made their icons green in a show of solidarity. For those that are not photoshop-inclined, you can even change it automatically by visiting helpiranelection.com, which turns your existing icon green (the "friendly web-geek" creator of this app is running this off of his own server at his own expense).
We will see where all of this leads. As I said myself, I don't think that the use of these new tools in and of itself constitutes a "revolution," as some have asserted. But it is very clear that, as the techniques and technologies of power multiply and evolve, so too do the methods of resistance. This organic, horizontal, distributed, and deeply democratic process stands in stark contrast to the autocratic theocracy that is the Iranian government.
The unrest unfolding in Iran is the quintessential 21st-century conflict. On one side are government thugs firing bullets. On the other side are young protesters firing “tweets.”
The protesters’ arsenal, such as those tweets on Twitter.com, depends on the Internet or other communications channels. So the Iranian government is blocking certain Web sites and evicting foreign reporters or keeping them away from the action.
The push to remove witnesses may be the prelude to a Tehran Tiananmen. Yet a secret Internet lifeline remains, and it’s a tribute to the crazy, globalized world we live in. The lifeline was designed by Chinese computer engineers in America to evade Communist Party censorship of a repressed Chinese spiritual group, the Falun Gong.
Today, it is these Chinese supporters of Falun Gong who are the best hope for Iranians trying to reach blocked sites.
“We don’t have the heart to cut off the Iranians,” said Shiyu Zhou, a computer scientist and leader in the Chinese effort, called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. “But if our servers overload too much, we may have to cut down the traffic.”
Mr. Zhou said that usage of the consortium’s software has tripled in the last week. It set a record on Wednesday of more than 200 million hits from Iran, representing more than 400,000 people.
If President Obama wants to support democratic movements on a shoestring, he should support an “Internet freedom initiative” pending in Congress. This would include $50 million in the appropriations bill for these censorship-evasion technologies. The 21st-century equivalent of the Berlin wall is a cyberbarrier, and we can help puncture it.
In 2007, Alec Ross and I wrote a paper called A Laptop in Every Backpack, which called for a new national committment in America to give every child a laptop computer. In that paper he and I write:
A single global communications network, composed of Internet, mobile, SMS, cable and satellite technology, is rapidly tying the world’s people together as never before. The core premise of this paper is that the emergence of this network is one of the seminal events of the early 21st century. Increasingly, the world’s commerce, finance, communications, media and information are flowing through this network. Half of the world’s 6 billion people are now connected to this network, many through powerful and inexpensive mobile phones. Each year more of the world’s people become connected to the network, its bandwidth increases, and its use becomes more integrated into all that we do.
Connectivity to this network, and the ability to master it once on, has become an essential part of life in the 21st century, and a key to opportunity, success and fulfillment for the people of the world.
We believe it should be a core priority of the United States to ensure that all the world’s people have access to this global network and have the tools to use it for their own life success. There is no way any longer to imagine free societies without the freedom of commerce, expression, and community, which this global network can bring. Bringing this network to all, keeping it free and open and helping people master its use must be one of the highest priorities of those in power in the coming years.
Been thinking a lot about these words these past few days. Recall that among the first thing the Iranian Government did after the election ended was turn off text messaging, shut down Facebook and radically interrupt internet access. Today they are attempting to shut down all global reporting from Tehran, and have been blocking Twitter and other sites not already shut off. I know Alec has been thinking about all this too as he is now senior advisor to Secretary Clinton on innovation and all things digital.
What should be the proper reaction of the UN, leading nations, NGOs to the turning off of basic communication services in a nation? Isn't the ability to use these tools something approaching but not quite a human right of the 21st century, one that should not be denied to any person, anywhere? Can one any longer imagine the concept of political freedom in a civil society without one's mobile device? Should the UN Secretary be calling on Iran to let reporters report, turn back on the internet, text messages and other web sites and social media?
Whatever one believes about what has and will happen in Iran, it seems like we should all agree that intefering with every day people's use of the modern global communications network should be more roundly condemned by the world's leaders, and the future price for such action should be high.
The Obama administration says it has tried to avoid words or deeds that could be portrayed as American meddling in Iran’s presidential election and its tumultuous aftermath.
Yet on Monday afternoon, a 27-year-old State Department official, Jared Cohen, e-mailed the social-networking site Twitter with an unusual request: delay scheduled maintenance of its global network, which would have cut off service while Iranians were using Twitter to swap information and inform the outside world about the mushrooming protests around Tehran.
The request, made to a Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey, is yet another new-media milestone: the recognition by the United States government that an Internet blogging service that did not exist four years ago has the potential to change history in an ancient Islamic country.
“This was just a call to say: ‘It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’ ” said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs.
Twitter complied with the request, saying in a blog post on Monday that it put off the upgrade until late Tuesday afternoon — 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Tehran — because its partners recognized “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.” The network was working normally again by Tuesday evening.
The State Department said its request did not amount to meddling. Mr. Cohen, they noted, did not contact Twitter until three days after the vote was held and well after the protests had begun.
“This is completely consistent with our national policy,” Mr. Crowley said. “We are proponents of freedom of expression. Information should be used as a way to promote freedom of expression.”
The episode demonstrates the extent to which the administration views social networking as a new arrow in its diplomatic quiver. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks regularly about the power of e-diplomacy, particularly in places where the mass media are repressed.
Mr. Cohen, a Stanford University graduate who is the youngest member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, has been working with Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other services to harness their reach for diplomatic initiatives in Iraq and elsewhere.
Last month, he organized a visit to Baghdad by Mr. Dorsey and other executives from Silicon Valley and New York’s equivalent, Silicon Alley. They met with Iraq’s deputy prime minister to discuss how to rebuild the country’s information network and to sell the virtues of Twitter.
Referring to Mir Hussein Moussavi, the main Iranian opposition candidate, Mr. Crowley said, “We watched closely how Moussavi has used Facebook to keep his supporters informed of his activities.”
Tehran has been buzzing with tweets, the posts of Twitter subscribers, sharing news on rallies, police crackdowns on protesters, and analysis of how the White House is responding to the drama.
With the authorities blocking text-messaging on cellphones, Twitter has become a handy alternative for information-hungry Iranians. While Iran has also tried to block Twitter posts, Iranians are skilled at using proxy sites or other methods to circumvent the official barriers.