Commercially Building on Public Conversations

September 4, 2007

Twitter launched Twitter Blocks this week. And it’s sponsored by Motorola. And I think this is great.


Twitter is a platform of massive potential because it’s unfolding in ways that makes no sense. TwitterVision is a spectacle, but it’s not a daily use. Blocks is the same. But over time both will become morphed, tweaked, revised and invigorated with the contemporary users.

And that’s the power of the platform. Think about the mobile phone – we presume it’s a natural evolution of the landline. It isn’t. It’s a very different media channel. The video phone, or Skype, is the natural evolution of the landline. Mobile is also confused by it’s portability and ability to geo-locate the user. That’s true, but the demand is under whelming. The mobile phone is an interruptive technology with the baggage of the land line culture. It’s a less of a ideal of a phone, more an ‘ideal’ of selling airtime. Then SMS arrived and then the brick came alive.

And this is why Twitter is brilliant. It may have some of the IRC mentality, but the resistance of it’s messaging peers (Pownce and Jaiku) to incorporate their features demonstrates the value is in the affordance that anyone but the crew behind Twitter require. Development at Twitter is about scaling – just like the telecom industry. It’s polar to Apple and the fetishistic iPhone (which is really an ultra portable Mac with a lease to AT&T – which seems to becoming to an end – which Apple don’t need to worry about – in fact it’s in their favour – and they know it.)

There has been some good thinking about how to diversify the affordance of a Tweet. Chris Messina has been trying to the the #channel or #group thinking up and running. I’m not convinced, but there is something in the thinking that the strings of texts we send to Twitter do contain more than we say. It’s the Object Oriented thinking within media (video, audio, images, text) that I’ve been privately obsessing about for the past couple of years. If anything, the tweets need to be compressed more, not littered with signposts.


So Twitter Blocks. Being able to visualise (and inspire better visualisation) of the fabric of the one liners is something you can only do by being close to the Twitter developers and Motorola have bought their way in. Using one of the best engineering teams to work on the visualisation, Stamen, and pushed out the project within a month. Now that’s shifting code, getting it out there and watch the playing, comments and ad revenue arrive without months of planning, metrics, management or committees.

I’d like to think there is something inherent in Blocks that is of interest to Motorola, if anything, Connecting People seems like a Nokia type of project. Maybe they we’re offered the idea first. But what excites me is brands willing to pay for play – engaging their staff and their thinking with existing platforms that people use. Twitter is open for any commercial operation to play with – and with all the conversations about dialogue you see via marketing blogs, press and conferences, it’s not hard to think that it wont be long before we see Brand Interfacing of Social Media (BISMs). This is not about portals, maybe it’s closer to branded utility, but what it really could mean is funding of social services that civic administrators cant grasp.

This isn’t any great revelation. Think Tesco and Computers for Schools. I think it was Richard Huntington on a podcast with Paul Coleman (Or Russell Davies) that the discussion turned towards, “Tesco’s should sort out the quality of their ready meals before they worried about the local schools IT department”, but with Twitter, the focus of concern hasn’t been shifted by the introduction of brand funded development on top of a public platform.

And should I object that Motorola is profiting from my Tweets? Well, Blocks wont make me switch to Motorola from my current supplier. Nor will I check out any of their phones because of this effort. But what does stick is that they within my vision, they are playing with the same tools as me, and they are not getting in the way – in fact they are helping me see connections in my postings (albeit minor) that I wouldn’t have spotted before. Should I concern myself about ‘permission marketing’? Nope, I went to them, they didn’t knock on my door – BUT, the lead through from Twitter’s pages doesn’t show the sponsor until the reveal – that is the Blocks interface page.

The ROI model is bound to be the click-through to the sponsors website. The advert is managed by DoubleClick, so the metrics are running alongside other client banner placements. These measurables are massive red herrings compared to the fact that the Sponsors name becomes associated to something that frequents my life.

I’ve been asked a lot (I mean A LOT) about the ROI on “Where are the Joneses?” so it’s no wonder that I find Blocks seductive as a commercially sponsored ‘art’ project that’s built on ‘social’ services. I’d like to know who indicated the project (Twitter, Motorola or Stamen) because there is kudos up for grabs, because that’s where the ROI model would be borne from. Who is getting the most attention from Blocks? Probably Stamen, just like BabyCow have from the “Where are the Joneses?” – which is how it should be.

Producers that make the stuff that we enjoy need the kudos’ because without them, the ideas would never leap from the page. And if Brands want the best talent, it’s not just the payola, but the kudos that attracts and retains quality producers.

But, there is something really missing from Blocks and that is the source code. Tom Carden, a developer on the Blocks is a developer with OpenGL and Processing knowledge. Blocks would have been stunning if Processing rather than Flash had been chosen; with the source code released and the data calls exposed, you would have seen a community of hacks build upon this work – richening it and so, taking Twitter into new ideas. If Motorola are sitting on the code for no reason, then that’s a shame…

The Twitter Wiki seems to be low on contribution to spawning out the platform. Chris Messina does nibble away at it, but the focus is on the mashup, not the value added; that is the extention use of the platform or at least the evolution of messaging. Something marketing should be fixated by.

Would the grass root community within the Twitter wiki be outraged if planners, creatives and technologists within agencies and brands started requesting features and interface suggestions? I doubt it. And there’s only one way to find out.

So never stop playing. Never stop learning. And never fear the future.

Further recommended reading:-

Stamen’s Mike Migurski’s notes on Blocks and ‘Uselessness’.

Tom Carden’s responses to the criticisms of Blocks

7 Responses to “Commercially Building on Public Conversations”

  1. Tom Carden Says:

    I can’t comment on the business side of things, sadly, though I will point the Twitter folks at this post on the off-chance they might want to.

    As for source code, it’s too early to say (we launched on Friday afternoon and it’s my first day back in the office since then) and I certainly can’t make any promises. But what I can say is that if you look at similar projects it will give you clues as to our aspirations.

    Much of the underlying Digg Labs code that Stamen wrote was released this year as the Digg Flashkit, and Trulia Hindsight is heavily based off our open source library Modest Maps (likewise Oakland Crime). Open source certainly isn’t incompatible with the world we’re in, with a few caveats I’m certainly interested in a similar model for Twitter too. Of course we have to talk to them about it first!

  2. Tom Carden Says:

    PS the link to my name goes to Chris Messina’s blog 🙂

  3. Hello Tom

    Link fixed – sorry about that.

    You say OpenSouce certainly isn’t compatible with your commercial world – is that a Stamen policy or the clients?

  4. Just had a look through the Digg Flash Kit code you mentioned. None of the Stamen code has a licence against the files. What use restrictions are there?

  5. Tom Carden Says:

    The license on the Google Code page for Digg’s Flashkit is BSD and that applies to the whole download as far as I know. So people can use it for commercial projects with no obligation to license their own work the same way.

    Since I’m commenting again I should say that there’s nothing about implementing stuff in Processing that means the source code is also released either (the license is LGPL). If we’d written Twitter Blocks in Processing it would probably have been easier on us, but the applet loading experience isn’t something we’re about to push onto our clients or users any time soon.

  6. Ah, thanks. The download is bundled with Macromedia Copyrighted files, thus the confusion.

    I take your point about the applet issue. Considering the smallish user base (I’ve no idea how many page impressions Blocks is getting – and I wont ask!) surely Processing would have been worth the final user experience…?

  7. Tom Carden Says:

    It would be a different user experience for sure, but I’m still not sure if it’s worth it. Most importantly, it probably wouldn’t be full screen 3D (or full browser, at least). To go full screen Java really needs OpenGL, but the OpenGL applet experience is still pretty bad because of big downloads and occasional crashes. We Feel Fine is the only thing I’ve ever seen where the applet experience didn’t get in the way (I admit to thinking it was Flash at first), but it’s not 3D.

    The alternative is to go the route Fidg’t went and get people to download an app ( That has a whole different set of expectations though, and I think makes it far more likely people will only run it once. It also makes it hard to update!

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