The unfolding legacy of Twitter for software design

March 29, 2009

The immense amount of ink spilled for Twitter these days signals two main things. First, that web innovation in general is going through a transformative period, one in which we don't see a lot of breakout technologies because the industry is struggling to redefine itself in the wake of economic collapse and the exhaustion of innovation. Twitter stands out because it's a counter example to this trend, a company that's going mainstream and perplexing people all at the same time. It's a paradigm changer; people are simultaneously obsessed with it and confused by it.

Both the confusion and the obsession will pass in time, just as it did for Facebook, the last internet rockstar to emerge before Twitter. Facebook is no longer the buzz maker it was about two years ago and Twitter will no longer intrigue us two years from now. And like Facebook today, it's primary mark on the web landscape will have been made, even though it will remain a powerful force on the web and continue to innovate.

The making of this mark is the second reason why there's so much attention lavished on Twitter right now, especially by technology pundits who pay constant attention to the effects of breakout services on their peers and descendants. The mark is both simple and profound, and it consists of demonstrating the potency of so-called "microblogging" for the distribution of social information.

Facebook may be credited with popularizing the "news feed" - a continually updated stream of information about people you care about - but Twitter boiled the news feed down to its essence. On Twitter, the news feed doesn't extract changes from secondary profiles and associated applications. It's not deducing news about your friends by passively monitoring their activity elsewhere, as the Facebook news feed did almost exclusively until very recently.

No, on Twitter, the users contribute directly into the news feed itself. The news feed is the main feature, not a method of surfacing the most contemporary information in a system. And the content that users add is very basic: simple strings of text no longer than 140-characters in length. Sure, Twitter could have allowed users to post images, movies and other types of data into the feed. But it's creators - partly restricted by the desire for all tweets to be SMS-compatible, and partly influenced by the legacy of blogging - kept things stripped down to their basics.

Twitter remains a stunningly simple application. That's its strength, but the simplicity also creates an opportunity for other services to apply Twitter's model to other ends. Facebook most notably just appropriated Twitter's user experience with the redesign of its homepage. Apparently, Facebook thinks that the Twitter model (combined with the related FriendFeed model) is the best way for friends to exchange information of all types - not only status updates but links, images, videos, and more. And months prior to that, Yammer did something similar for the workplace by releasing an enterprise microblogging service.

This is just the start. Over the next few years, we are going to see social services across the spectrum appropriate and expand upon the basic functionality of Twitter, because there are needs that Twitter doesn't (and can't) fulfill, either onsite or through its API. Since all software is becoming social, expect the Twitterification of software in general.

Why is the Twitter way of communicating so powerful - and consequently, why will others borrow from it? Microblogging is passive, it's distributed, and it's easy. In other words, people can digest and respond to tweets as they please. There's no technological or sociological pressure for them to consume or act on information in ways that are disproportionate to their interest level. When you post a tweet, it gets blasted out to many recipients all at once, unlike email which is architecturally designed for a limited audience. And each tweet demands very little from its users - just a simple thought or observation.

So, Twitter has set the standard. It's currently proving that its model can appeal to mainstream audiences, who actually appear capable of grokking its utility (which was not always a given). But this is just the beginning - just as "social networking" features pervade services of all kinds these days, microblogging will also become ubiquitous - and it will assume different forms depending on the various needs at hand.