14 July 2009

Twitter: sheer win. On degeekifying the geekery.

Back when I took the whole "blogging" and "personal website" thing seriously, I had a fairly sophisticated system for seeing who read my blog. I counted referer* headers, search strings, and hits over time with software like visitors. I had my own scripts that grepped the logs for Princeton IPs and resolved them to the names of people visiting. I even emailed people when it looked like their computers were infected with Nimda or Code Red or whatever the virus-of-the-day was back in 2001.

This sort of naval-gazing was great fun -- in fact, I'm sure I made a lot of posts just because I loved seeing the names and numbers scroll by. But I eventually got bored with it, especially after I graduated and moved to a school where I no longer could instantly resolve an IP address to the name of a human being.

It was also a huge pain to make all of that software work, given that I ran Debian Unstable which (true to its name) would occasionally break during an upgrade.

On that note, I used to read blogs with feedonfeeds. One day, an apt-get update broke php4-mysql, which broke feedonfeeds. I would have fixed it, but I realized that I was saving a whole bunch of time by not following the Internet echo chamber, so I never did.

With an RSS reader, you can track lots of peoples' blogs, but you have to understand what RSS is all about, find the RSS links at the sites you use, paste them into your reader, hope that you don't get Atom and RSS 0.9 and RSS 1.0 confused and plug the wrong URL for the wrong format into your reader. (This was apparently a very important technical and even political issue back in the day.) There are very smart people working on RSS readers, but I think it's still too much trouble for a lot of people.

The real genius behind Twitter was combining both of these pieces.

With ordinary web sites, you can use one of a zillion log-analysis plug-ins or, if you have access to the raw logs, roll your own. Neither choice is easy. On twitter, you have a count -- a count! of real human beings! -- following you. And you have their names! Or at least their Twitter handles. You have what I had at Princeton without having to know what httpd.conf is, or how to edit a crontab file, or how to install a Debian package, or any of a zillion other things completely irrelevant to the task of finding out how popular you are on the Internets. Even teenyboppers with Xanga accounts still had to know enough to put the sitemeter tracking bug into their layout, and of course that wouldn't tell them who visited, only the IP address of the visitor. With Twitter, you have a number and a list.

The second thing that Twitter made vastly easier was that it replaced RSS with something far easier. With RSS, you can track what lots of people are writing, but you have to be clued-in enough and sufficiently inclined to bother. Twitter made this trivial:

With RSS:

  • Find something you'd like to subscribe to.
  • Hunt around for the RSS link.
  • Is that it? Is it called XML? RSS? Atom? Feed? News feed? Rich Site Syndication? What?
  • Does it have that little radar logo? The XML button logo? Where the heck is it? Maybe it's here! Here in the title of the page! Aha! They used the link tag!
  • Oh, wait, that lets me add it as a Firefox Live Bookmark. I don't want a Firefox Live Bookmark! I want the URL so I can paste it into my reader! (In fairness, Firefox makes this much easier these days, but back in the day, it wasn't easy.)
  • Do I want the RSS or the Atom? What's the difference?

With Twitter:
  • Find an interesting feed
  • Click "follow"

I'll also add that the @notation for replying is total win. Back in the day, I wrote a blog post that linked to another website (sadly offline today; here's the archive), speculating about what the author would have thought. He apparently noticed it in his referer logs and wrote an email to tell me. You'd have to know a fair bit of technical mumbo-jumbo to do that in 2004, but in 2009, I'd just type @whoever into Twitter. Heck, I could even leave out the @; lots of people search for themselves. My hosting company "followed" Over-vu within minutes of my mentioning them.

I'm hardly the first to observe that some of the most successful business ideas on the Internet come from adapting and simplifying things that geeks take for granted. I did log analysis because I could. Few people would find it worth the bother. Twitter made it trivial. I had a personal webpage because I was willing to go to the trouble of building one. I wish I could remember the name of the pundit who observed that what Facebook and Myspace and Friendster did was make it trivial for non-geeks to have a web presence. I could search my email because I knew how to roll a search engine with Lucene and had the always-on server to do it. Gmail made it easy for everyone to search their email.

It's not merely enough to make it easy to use -- all of these applications have been transformative. Twitter affords less space than a blog, which means both that posts fit in SMS messages for mobile users and that terseness becomes a virtue. Facebook doesn't really let you post a homepage -- it lets you fill out forms. Consequently a Facebook profile is far cleaner and more inviting than the average Geocities (or Myspace) page. Twitter doesn't do log analysis and geolocation and referer tracking, but I don't think Twitter users miss these --- popularity as a single number is much easier to understand than "I got 5,603 hits from Yemen last week!" Twitter's follower counts (dare I call them scores?) are even more impressive than facebook friend counts, because you can hide most of your profile from a facebook "friend" and filter them from your news feed, but a twitter follower has to see all of your updates.

The multi-billion-dollar business question is: what do geeks have today that hasn't yet been adapted for the masses?

* Yes, that's the correct spelling in this context.. Whoever wrote the HTTP spec famously spelled it incorrectly.

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