Over the last year I have gone from a complete sceptic to a vocal advocate of the fast growing micro-blogging service, Twitter. The reason for this conversion is directly related to how I have seen the Twitter service evolve from a distracting playground for narcissism to a powerful and authentic source of crowd-sourced news. At times over the last year, Twitter has arguably rivaled the biggest news and information portal sites in the industry. Further, I would argue that Twitter could soon do what Digg had promised and failed to do years ago, to democratize the news industry.
First off, if you don't use Digg or Twitter here is a quick overview of both.
Digg is a social bookmarking service where members "control the headlines" by promoting their favourite news stories. If a story gets enough votes (called "Diggs") then it makes it to the front page of the Digg.com site, an esteemed honour which can drive significant traffic back to the original content source. The popular content can stay there for as long as it keeps getting "Dug" by the registered Digg community. In theory, it is a user-controlled content platform where democracy rules and content of interest can come from anywhere.
Twitter is a social network platform for "micro-blogging" where users form communities through "following" and being followed and then broadcasting to each other text-based messages up to 140 characters in length (called "Tweets"). These short messages often contain live links to other sites where longer or more visual content resides (media articles, video, photos, etc.). Think of Twitter as a "headlines-only" information service. If your headline is interesting, I'll click your link, if it is really interesting, I'll share it with my network.
What is fair to say about both companies is that they are leaders in fostering user generated content of timely relevance. If your response to this statement is "so what?" here is what I would argue is revolutionary about the promise of these models:
- Media by the People: Content can come from anywhere, from anyone and is leading to the rise of a new class of "Citizen Journalists", independent web content producers who become popular recognized voices on certain topics without being aligned to any particular media agency.
- Media for the People: In both cases, because the content is provided by unencumbered users, it is varied, unfiltered and the content that is most likely to get "buzz" will be the content of most interest to the community at that moment. So top stories are really a bottom up voting system and no content is subject to the widely documented filters and constraints classically attributed to today's more structured media.
- And Fast: Because content can come from anywhere, at anytime, and is self-promoted, stories emerge faster in these services than most professional media organizations can report it. During the recent tragedy in Mumbai, for example, there were reported Tweets from guests trapped inside the Taj Hotel and from observers on the street. Information was being relayed around so quickly that the Indian Government actually asked observers to stop reporting in case the terrorists inside the hotel were gaining insight by monitoring web reports.
So with such a valuable mission, why has Digg failed so miserably?
I would argue that Digg has failed in its mission to democratize media specifically and ironically because the Orwellian nature of its democratic structure. As popular blogger Simon Owens notes in his insightful recent post entitled The Politics of Digg, "despite proclamations of its democratic community -- one where a group of users works in tandem to pluck out an important news item to push to the masses -- not every vote is created equal."
In this well researched piece, Simon reveals tales of elitism, manipulation and attempts at the equivalent of payola in his findings from numerous interviews with top users of the Digg system.
"As the site grew increasingly popular, it became the target of more and more users who wanted to game the system; entire companies sprouted up offering to promote stories for money and homogenized groups worked together to promote their own agendas and content. The site administrators eventually rolled out new algorithms that necessitated a "diversity" of votes to make it harder for a group of 50 or so malicious Diggers to hijack the site for its own purposes.
But despite these new hurdles, the elite group still enjoys an enormous amount of power when it comes to promoting its own links. And it wasn't luck that awarded this power; almost all of Digg's top users engage in regular behind-the-scenes networking in a you-scratch-my-back strategy, a series of instant messages, shouts and emails that come together and thrust hordes of stories past other competitors. ... In what can almost be described as blatant politicization, several of the Diggers told of analyzing their friends lists and trimming away those least likely to aid them in their quests for the ultimate goal: front page promotion."
Simon isn't the only one to blog on the shortcomings of Digg in living up to its core mission. Criticism of Digg went main stream last year when it was reported that a top Digg user was looking to sell their user profile for cash on online auction site, eBay. It was a telling moment for Digg and symbolic of what was wrong with the system.
So, how will Twitter achieve what Digg could not?
Well, first and foremost, Twitter is not set up as a user hierarchy. Every user has the same 140 characters to express themselves as everyone else. This is not to say that there aren't super-users of the service with considerable influence on the conversations. There are. The difference though is that so far, these Twitter "super-users" are real people, mostly popular bloggers, business icons or politicians. This makes selling their profiles much more difficult.
Second, Twitter is driving significant success from their decision to open their system up to the greater community who use it. Twitter has been built in the purest form of a Web 2.0 company, using an "open architecture" development framework. What this means is that Twitter has published much of its underlying code to the web for other services to build around through what's called an "Open API" or Application Program Interface. By democratizing its own code base it has allowed its community of users to build their own versions of Twitter and to extend the functionality of Twitter considerably. And it seems to be working for them as there are already hundreds of services built around Twitter to date. And this is all by design as Twitter Co-founder Biz Stone noted recently "the API has been arguably the most important, or maybe even inarguably, the most important thing we've done with Twitter." There is a lesson to the modern economy here in what twitter is doing. It seems counter intuitive to take everything you have built and give it away to others for free. But that is exactly what Twitter is doing and it is helping them to create explosive growth. When you are out to democratize an industry, leveraging the collective power and energy of the open source movement is a great way to approach it.
Third, and I believe most relevant to the real promise of Twitter, is that it does not rely on a malleable voting system as the methodology for selecting the most popular stories. Instead, popular topics emerge through the equivalent of tracking "hot zones" in posting activity. In other words, as users in the service post on topics they want to talk about, the service tracks the topics and shows real time text maps of key topics purely based on repetition. Clicking on any of these key topics will show you the type of commentary on that topic at any given moment. Here is an example of what's being talked about right now through an API-based third party application called TwitScoop. It is already fascinating to watch what the Twitter world is speaking about at any given moment but I would argue that the best is yet to come.
I would argue that Twitter will continue to emerge as a transformative and democratizing agent in our media landscape and will do so in some of the following ways.
- Tracking Tone. Imagine if, instead of just tracking real time conversations about topics, that Twitter tracked the tone of tweets as well, providing an instant feedback loop to companies, politicians, journalists and individuals around every topic of interest being talked about. Are we hopeful or pessimistic about the economy today? Was the choice of Hillary Clinton in the Obama cabinet seen as unifying or foreboding? Is Walmart a victim or a facilitator? Information is power and feedback is powerful. Twitter is a growing source of both.
- Getting Regional. Add to the above the ability to begin breaking down posts and opinions into demographic segments and the voices in Twitter become even more powerful. Twitter already collects some data on users like city and country, so we could presumably already start following content on a more regional basis. Traditional media is already wrestling with the shift away from mass media in a multi-channel, multi platform universe. Twitter could aggregate and customize for the widely documented "Long Tail" demands of media consumers instantly.
- Turning Visual. By providing the ability to track topics, track the tone of topics and to create a customizable view of the topics from Twitter, it is quite conceivable for Twitter to create the exact product that Digg aims for today albeit unsuccessfully; a democratically produced and customized Front Page of "what's new". To a certain degree, Twitter showed us the promise of this with their customized "Election 08" view, which for many was our default home page for that month. Now, imagine the impact of a more widely available and customizable view of this emerging democratically produced content.
It would be the end of Digg once and for all, which I would argue would be better for the promise of a truly democratic news industry.