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Twitter’s Window Onto the Zeitgeist

August 2009

I kept hoping Twitter would go away. Two years ago when we looked at it, the service seemed mostly silly: send a 140-character update saying what you’re doing at that moment.

Receiving that update, via cell phone, smartphone, or computer, would be people who were “following” you. And you could select people who you wanted to follow. Ho hum. Plus, I was reluctant to have yet another stream of data directed at me, since I’m already struggling to manage e-mail, the Web, blogs, and more. My strategy was to ignore it.

But Twitter didn’t go away. In fact, you can hardly escape it, given that it’s in the headlines, playing a prominent role, for example, in the events in Iran during and following the recent election. In fact, the U.S. government reportedly asked Twitter to postpone a scheduled shutdown for maintenance because it was playing such a big role in events on the ground. Twitter complied.

As I write this in late June, Twitter is still raging about Iran. At the moment there are well over 100 “tweets” per minute in the thread #iranelection. (A term preceded by the # sign is a convention that has evolved to make it easy to follow posts on a particular topic, irrespective of who individually you might be following.) People are posting tweets such as, “There is a Basij station in Iran-Zamin ave. where most biker units are organized.” And “BBC playing very safe, you would think we had not had bloodshed all over the streets of Tehran today. Is Britain scared?” And “Mousavi campaign office raided, declared ‘HQ for Psychological War Against the Country’s Security.’” And “How To Treat a Gunshot Wound: http://bit.ly/11yDzR.” Sobering.

Some of the tweets have links to photos and videos. Just scanning one minute’s worth of tweets is astonishing. It’s as if you’re witnessing things as they happen.

That is Twitter. It’s become a sort of zeitgeist lens. People now say, If I want to know what happened yesterday, I do a Google search. If I want to get a sense for what’s happening this moment, I search Twitter.

The competition right now among Internet startups is to offer the most up-to-date window onto this zeitgeist. The generic term is real-time searching.

One new search engine, Collecta, claims to offer search results that are several seconds ahead of competitors. As the site says, instead of finding old stuff, Collecta looks for mentions of your search term happening right now. It indexes social media such as Twitter, popular blogs, YouTube, and Flickr. Do a search on a term, and you get a constant stream of what’s being posted right now. It’s mindboggling.

Scoopler is similar. Like Collecta, it offers a constantly updated stream of results. If that gives you a bit of vertigo, the right side of the screen offers the most popular content related to your topic in static form.

Topsy is a more conventional, Google-like search engine, but with a twist. As I’ve noted above, people often include Internet links in their tweets. In general, Google ranks your search results according to how popular the websites are. Topsy ranks its search results according to how often a particular link is tweeted. It’s similar to Google, but more timely.

TweetMeme is like Digg, but with a focus on Twitter rather than the Web as whole. I’m addicted to Digg, in which people “digg” (a sort of vote) what Internet news story, video, or image they like best at the moment. Lots of fascinating stuff comes up. TweetMeme is the same, but in this case instead of counting the number of times people have “dugg” a topic, TweetMeme counts the number of times a tweet has been “retweeted.” That is, a person using Twitter might find a particular tweet interesting and so retweets it to his followers, using the convention of beginning the tweet with “RT” to indicate that it’s a retweet.

Twitter has gone way beyond what its originators imagined. Like the Web itself, which was initially developed as a way of sharing academic papers and is now a cornucopia of everything we want and desire, Twitter has become a tool with a variety of uses.

Prominently, it offers a platform for discussing just about anything happening at the moment. If you’re watching Serena Williams (who’s an active Twitterer) play a tennis match at Wimbledon on TV, you can simultaneously follow a discussion about the match in Twitter just by doing a search on “Serena” or “#wimbledon” on the Twitter website.

And me? I have, ahem, 59 followers.

© 2009 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen