When Metadata Comes to Twitter

Chris Lehmann is the principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I love reading his education-related tweets because of his many interesting ideas, insights and observations. There's another side to Chris, though. Chris is a rabid sports fan, and he'll unleash a torrent of tweets during certain sporting events. I can appreciate his sports fervor, but to me those sports tweets are more noise rather than signal. I'd love to be able to tell Twitter, “give me all of Chris Lehmann's education-related tweets and none of his sports tweets.” (I also want Chris to continue tweeting his sports tweets, because those are an essential part of who he is.)

What I'm talking about here is metadata--data about data. I'd love for every tweet that's sent out to be categorized in some way by the tweeter. Tweets need metadata in the same way that books need a title. Is this tweet about an interesting new blog post by the sender of the tweet? Or about an interesting blog post by someone other than the sender of the tweet? A tweet about a useful free resource for educators? A new explanatory screencast about open-source software? A tweet about an inspiring video on YouTube? A tweet that'll make me chuckle?

Sure, it takes a bit of extra effort for people to add metadata to their tweets, but the result is well worth it. More people would receive more of the information they're interested in – and less of the information they're not interested in. In a knowledge economy, that's a big deal, for time is more valuable than money. When more people receive more signal and less noise, knowledge is created, more becomes possible – and thoughts dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.

Instead of following a person on Twitter, you could follow the specified metadata streams from that person. (You might choose to follow all metadata streams from a person, too.) Each person on Twitter would then need to think about topics they tend to tweet about. For example, for me it would be free software such as Inkscape, OpenShot, Moodle, and Scratch. I also tweet about libraries. And I tweet the occasional joke tweet – something silly to make people smile. I sometimes tweet a truth that has hit me over the head – a truth that might have been uttered by someone before, or perhaps not. From all of the above, you get to pick and choose which metadata stream you'd like to receive from me. It's my tweet stream on your terms, not on my terms.

Do you see the power of that? Implementing metadata on tweets is no simple programming matter, but it's not overly complicated, either. If Twitter doesn't make this happen, someone else will.

As I peer into my crystal ball for where social media is going, I can't help but think that down the road more and more social media will be a simple Internet protocol. Twitter and similar mainstream social media services will remain at the center, but some very interesting innovations will be happening at the edge. Which edge? Well, sometime I'll set up an open-source dedicated server at my own home where interested persons could follow my tweets. I'd be in complete control of all aspects of my social media server. People could follow my social media stream using an open-source social media client that allows them to see my own stream within their Twitter stream.

When I'm in complete control of my social media stream, I don't need to spend too much time wishing a certain feature could be implemented. If I want a feature to be implemented, I'd hire a programmer to do so – and maybe ask my followers if they'd like to chip in to make that feature happen. I'd also pool together with other like-minded “edgers” to figure out what features we were going to collaboratively bring to life.

Some people would criticize such developments as being “anti-populist.” To them I would say: Continue living in the social media world of 2010. If you don't find that too restrictive, suffocating or annoying, more power to you.

We're moving towards a world where you receive more of the information you're interested in and less of the information you're not interested in. But the movement in that direction is happening far too slowly. I've written before that Twitter could advance its business goals and business progress by charging for its premium service, while still providing a free basic service to all. I prefer using a service that is not entirely advertising supported. But what do I know? I'm only the customer/user--the person for whom the service is constructed.

In the early days of Twitter, the company prided itself on being shaped by the needs and wishes of its users. Those days of pride are long gone. Twitter has a chance to regain that focus, but the window of opportunity is a narrow one. The digital natives are restless.

--Phil Shapiro

The blogger, a member of the Internet Press Guild, is an educator at a public library in the Washington, D.C., area and teaches an occasional graduate educational technology class at American University, in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/philshapiro

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