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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Future of Twitter

It may surprise you tech-savvy reader but most people still don’t use Twitter. Though we’re one of the most populous Twitter nations (4th in the Twitter league as of 2012), only one in five of the UK population uses Twitter from the stats I can find: i.e. users are in the minority. And of those, around 40% are passive — readers — rather than active — writers.

All this explains why yesterday around the network’s seventh anniversary I found myself on BBC Radio Scotland explaining the basics of Twitter. And why it seems like a good time to analyse the success of Twitter.

That success might in large part be attributed to the old adage that the simplest ideas are the best. Twitter took one of the key ingredients of the early social networks — the status update — and turned it into a hyper-concise broadcast medium. In tune with our time-pressured lifestyles it took what was most valuable to us about social networks — what other people were thinking, doing, eating, seeing — and condensed the ability to share and read this information down to a compact form.

Though there have been numerous evolutionary changes in the way Twitter operates this simple core has remained, and grown in popularity. Today around 200 million people use Twitter regularly. And from these 200 million users, Twitter expects to generate a billion dollars in advertising revenue this year.

The way people use Twitter has evolved too. One thing I have noticed recently is a willingness to conduct business via open @ messages that would previously have been restricted to private direct messages or SMS. For example, organising where and when to meet.

This says a lot about our attitudes to privacy in this social century, but it also comes in part I think from a willingness to jump fairly indiscriminately between multiple short messaging services. Conversations flip between Facebook, text, Whatsapp, Skype, Twitter, and more, albeit not seamlessly.

It’s the friction in swapping between these services that makes me wonder again if there isn’t an argument for a standardised, internet-based short messaging protocol. This would clearly damage Twitter and all the others unless they could find a way to differentiate. But in the long term it makes little sense that we preserve all of these little digital fiefdoms if they are fundamentally doing the same thing: carrying short text messages and linked media from one to one, or one to many. If this function is really a core part of the internet then surely its operation should be on distributed, internet principles?

It were to happen, one of the barriers to this shift would be identity: without a single authority who warrants identity (and polices abuse) on a communications network? The answer might come from the old telephone network: we pay for a company to connect our telephone number to the network, and sign up for their fair use policies in the process. Small breaches of good practice are handled by our provider, more serious ones by a central regulator or law enforcement.

In this model Twitter may retain a role as service provider, or this role may be taken up by those that provide our connectivity, much as they provide many people today with their email addresses.

Whatever happens I think Twitter’s lifespan in its current form is limited. Powerful, useful and entertaining as it has become, like any social network its hold on us is shallow. Its customer base is fickle and fast-moving. And its position in the market is under constant threat from some of the world’s most aggressive innovators.

I will continue to enjoy Twitter as a regular user. But I don’t expect to be celebrating its birthday in another seven years.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future Everything: Smart Cities vs Smart Citizens

On the first day of the Future Everything conference a thesis seemed to be emerging. That the future of the city was going in one of two directions. On one hand was presented the cold, planned, infrastructure of efficiency proposed by governments and major corporations. One the other was the messy, organic, joyful improvisation of citizens. These two were presented as something of a binary choice by a number of speakers, with a pretty clear bias as to which they preferred.

I missed the first speaker of the day, while giving a presentation myself elsewhere. But I caught him — Dan Hill, CEO of Fabrica — speaking the previous night at the launch event and read his theories online here.

Dan is a very engaging speaker and though my natural inclination towards concision found his essay a little extended for the argument he was making, it is nonetheless fascinating. I’ll try and précis in many fewer words here.

Dan argues that the debate around ‘smart cities’ today is dominated by large corporations promoting a vision of efficiency. When in fact efficiency is not necessarily a desirable objective for many of the key functions of a city. Rather the corporations are using this as a drive to increase network traffic and so increase demand for their own products. By contrast the real innovation is being driven by smart citizens using social media to self-organise and drive change. This progressive thinking and acting is in dramatic contrast to our rather 19th century means of decision making. Dan believes we do need to update our infrastructure but doing so through the corporate/old government approach risks leaving us with dated infrastructure that doesn’t do what we need and locks us into long term issue much like the promotion of the car over public transport has over the last 50 years.

The afternoon debate featured Usman Haque, creator of Pachube (now Cosm), designer, artist and architect and Martijn de Waal, journalist and founder of the Dutch think tank, The Public Matters.

Usman explained how the very nature of the city makes it a ‘wicked’ problem — a definition created in the 1970s to categorise problems that for various reasons are difficult or even impossible to solve. He argued that the sheer ‘messy’ complexity of interactions that make up a city mean that a centrally-planned solution will never deliver efficiency or even any desirable outcomes. Especially if those outcomes rely on the collection of endless amounts of data for someone else to ‘do good’ with.

Martijn gave three examples of smart city development from around Seoul in South Korea including Hongdae and Songdo. Songdo is the archetype of the centrally planned, corporately-driven smart city. And as you might expect it looks pretty soulless so far. What it also is, more surprisingly, is largely devoid of smart city technology — sensors, communications etc. This is all yet to come, despite the marketing hype. Hongdae is a much more organic development from sleepy suburb into jumping urban development, with relaxed planning laws enabling rapid revitalisation and renewal. His third example was of a very engaged approach taken by Seoul city hall, where they are working with citizen groups to advance problems — for example using a social platform to work with local environmental groups to help uncover where a batch of radioactive tarmac had been accidentally laid, and track its removal and replacement.

In the keynote on day two, author Anthony Townsend asserted similar concerns to Dan Hill, while acknowledging the role that companies like IBM have played in the successful smart city experiments to date. And it was something that Townsend said that really crystallised my issue with the binary choice between soft and organic, and hard and corporate.

He suggested that while one is like the mainframe, the other is like the internet: created in a distributed fashion from the ground up. Well the internet may have been built on open standards, and many of its outposts may have been constructed by hobbyists and communities. Indeed this is where the most interesting developments are happening today. But the superstructure of the internet was built by commercial entities, investing and often losing vast sums of money deploying global fibre, data centres and networks. Without that corporate investment, who would have created the incredibly expensive inter-city and inter-continental links that now bring us our videos, mails and social networks?

I believe that smart cities will be the same. There is a level of infrastructure required — power, waste, connectivity, sensing — that almost certainly will not be built organically by community groups. There will be outposts of DIY but mass coverage — the superstructure — will need to come from commercial entities, some of which will succeed, some of which will fail. We will have to trade something to these entities in order to make it worth their while to invest. And yes, we may not like those costs in the long run. But ultimately they will drive progress faster than if we leave everything to hackers and organic growth.

The analogy I offer is the difference between a house and a home. You can build your own house, and some people do. But for the vast majority, we buy a house. We don’t like the long term cost and the house we choose will usually be a compromise. But we turn it into a home with the changes we make: the sounds, smells, and colours that we add.

Cities are the same: it’s going to be a long time until society evolves past the point where the market is the primary driver for investment. And until that point if we want our cities to be smarter, we need to swallow a degree of corporate investment and recognise that the humanity, the interest, the things that make great cities, are the things that we build on top of this superstructure, not in place of it.

Tom Cheesewright