Zach Beauvais

Twitter metadata—metaphor?

by | Feb 10, 2009 | Perspective, Semantic Web

This post featured originally in Nodalities Magazine.

Snow from office.
snow from my window

I’m sure I’m introducing old friends; but Twitter is a “microbloggiing” platform, to give it its proper description. it gives users 140 characters to publish status updates, comments, gripes, complaints, praises, news and whatever comes to mind. It’s burst out of its original answer to the simple question: “What are you doing?” and users often tweet just about everything.

One interesting innovation is the integration of the hashtag. Simply a hash symbol (#) and a tag descriptor for the comment. This gives people the ability to follow particular threads of updates or participate in conversations around an interest. They’re often used, for example, to update the goings on from conferences (#FOWA for example). People give their own content this little bit of information, and a search engine can find them. People can add additional information and follow conventions which allow for distributed trends that anyone can follow and interact with.

The recent snowfall in Britain gave rise to a flurry of tweets about road closures, amounts of snow falling, schools closing down and all the other chaos unleashed. When users followed a simple convention, however, this information got organised. People quickly adopted the #uksnow hashtag to track the topic; and eventually someone worked out a way to capture all the info needed to follow these geographically. By tweeting the first half of a UK post code plus a rating out of ten snowfall, anyone following the thread knows exactly where it’s snowing. It’s like an instant weather polling station, distributed across the country. It can go a step further, however, when services can actually mashup these tweets when users turn their simple status updates into a mini line of code.

This little bit of information allows for people to write software to track and automate the twitter information. This interactive map from benmarsh.co.uk, for example, actually plots a visual graph of snowfall across Britain. Bigger snowflakes indicate larger numbers out of ten in the poll. It’s simple, really. Ingenious, possibly. But the fundamental distinction between this tracking ability and the noise of thousands of Twits shouting about the snow is that little bit of metadata.

So, is this use of twitter a metaphor for the Semantic Web? It’s certainly a picture of automating information flow using metadata via software. Sounds Semanticcy to me.

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