Last week I spoke about how the ‘@’ on Twitter and other microblogging services may no longer be necessary due to the addition of the in_reply_to_status_id API call on services like Twitter and Identi.ca. In the comments of that article you mentioned several examples why that would still be necessary. I’ve spent the weekend contemplating these and still argue with a proper infrastructure these would not be necessary. In my own opinion, services like Twitter and even Identi.ca are broken because there is no easy way to tag individuals and people without cluttering up actual content with unorthodox, unorganized ways of tagging data and people. We, the users have had to come up with our own ways to do so socially, and I think that’s a hack. Let’s go over a few:
Addressing a specific person or group of people publicly.
With current infrastructure on microblogging platforms, this is the one problem that will cause people to continue to need to use the @ sign. There is no easy way currently to say you want to make sure a particular individual or group of individuals see a specific message. This is different than a reply which the recently added API calls resolve, in that these types of messages are not necessarily in reply to anyone. So instead we have to clutter up our posts by prefixing our post with the intended recipient at the beginning, whereas if a proper infrastructure were provided, we could focus solely on the content.
Facebook has overcome this pretty well with allowing you to “tag” individuals in a Facebook Note that you would like to see the message, or that might be in the message itself. Twitter, Laconi.ca, and others need to look into a new API call to allow users to tag other individuals so this is no longer needed. Imagine, for instance, if Twhirl let you choose from your list of friends and tag them in the post you are sharing. You could then have pure message in your 140 characters and not have to worry about the intended audience.
Common English (or your language) names
I mentioned before that @ wasn’t necessary, perhaps even if there weren’t an API call provided to link replies. Microblogging clients should be able to read each username and look at your friends, and tell immediately that you are referring to one of them, adding them to your list of replies.
However, this gets tricky when you get to someone with a username that is common English or even another language. For instance, what if my username were “stay”? Every time any of my friends said they were “stay”ing somewhere I would get a notification stating they were replying to me or addressing to me.
The solution for this again would be fixed with a simple person tagging system like what I recommend above. Allowing me to specify the intended users in the message would allow clients to know I was addressing those users without me having to further clutter up the actual message with meta information that doesn’t need to be there.
Hashtags need to be gone, plain and simple. All Twitter and Identi.ca and even FriendFeed need to add is a simple meta layer to their API, and beyond just allowing me to tag individuals to my messages, allowing me to add tag keywords to identify my message and make it more searchable. Tags clutter up our messages as well and keep us from being able to say what we need to say in 140 characters. In fact, I argue that meta layer should be completely flexibly – imagine if I could append whatever I wanted to a message. Location information, what I’m eating at the time, websites I’m surfing, etc. (I’m just listing those in theory – those could be messages themselves, but some are meta information) Part of our 140 character message should not be words not pertinent to the intended message itself.
SMS and XMPP/Track
So you ask, if we add a meta layer on top of all this, how can I then tag my messages and tag people in my messages via SMS or XMPP (Jabber)? SMS and XMPP should be treated as clients. The SMS client should be just like any other GUI client out there, just text based. I should be able to type “help” and have it give me a list of commands I can type to make it do what I want. Part of that client could be to include #hashtags and @intended’s to specify meta information about the message, but those should be part of the additional 20 characters SMS gives me outside of the 140 Characters microblogging requires. All of the same goes for XMPP. XMPP could provide an even richer experience since it isn’t bound by the 160 character limit SMS gives people. For a great example, see Dustin Sallings‘ Track XMPP clients for both Twitter and Identi.ca (Identi.ca is real time!). Type help to his client and it gives you a whole list of things you can do with it. I’m sure this could easily be expanded further to allow tagging, person tagging, and more.
Twitter and Identi.ca’s announcements supporting linking of replies via the API last week is a very welcome announcement. With just a few more tweaks I think we’re on our way to a much cleaner microblogging environment that is even more searchable, more focused on content, and definitely more organized. For now I’m stuck using ‘@’ and #hashtags.