My Mechanical Turk

This week’s storm in the blogosphere focused on the question of “authority” on twitter and other social networks. It all began when welebrity Loïc Le Meur suggested that twitter searches should be filtered by a measure of authority. This immediately elicited critical responses from other high profile members of the online world, such as Robert Scoble and Dave Winer, only to have Mike Arrington leap to Loïc’s defence.

So what is the kerfuffle all about? I’ll start at the beginning, with twitter. I’ve written about twitter many times before, but there may be a few readers who still don’t know what it is. Twitter is a microblog. It is one of many, but currently the most popular. A microblog allows users to post very short messages and links to all of their “followers” (also known as “subscribers” or “friends”, depending on the site). While it is possible to make these messages private on twitter, most people keep their messages public. As with anything publically published online, this means that these messages are visible to anyone, not just followers. In particular, they are amenable to searching. A twitter search is a powerful tool. A good example is using twitter to keep track of rapidly unfolding current events. Over the last few days, many twitter users have been posting photos, news links and opinions about the bombings in Gaza, tagging them with label “#gaza” which makes them easy to find on twitter. In amongst the predictably partisan rhetoric from both sides, it is possible to stay a step ahead of reporting in the mainstream media and gain some genuine insight into the crisis. Not so long ago, a search for #mumbai provided a similar window onto the Mumbai terrorist attack.

As valuable as these searches are, Twitter’s strength is also its weakness. The number of twitter users worldwide is now estimated to be approaching 6 million, which means that the amount of information flowing around in “tweets” (as twitter messages are commonly known) is enormous. However, as twitter grows the signal-to-noise ratio is likely to drop and more and more tweets are likely to be spam, inflammatory bile or just nonsense. So from this perspective, having an ability to filter search results to the most “relevant” tweets (in some sense) is appealing. The problem, however, arose with Loïc’s suggestion that filtering should be based on a notion of “authority”, possibly defined in terms of the number of followers each user has. Not unreasonbly, many took issue with this measure of authority. As Robert Scoble (@scobleizer) argued:

Here’s why it’s a stupid idea: everyone is gaming the number of followers. And, even if everyone weren’t, popularity on Twitter isn’t a good way to measure whether a Tweet is any good or not.

From there discussions moved on to the distinction between the number of followers and the quality of the people you follow.

The ensuing debate leapt from blogs to twitter to FriendFeed, but to my mind part of the reason for the controversy is that a number of different issues were being conflated:

  1. Is there merit in being able to filter search results based on characteristics of the user posting the tweet?
  2. Is the number of followers you have a good measure of the quality of your tweets?
  3. Is it valuable to have a large number of followers?

Most people debating the issue combined the first two questions, only allowing answers “yes and yes” (the Loïc/Arrington perspective) or “no and no” (the Winer/Scoble view). My own answers are, respectively, “yes”, for the reasons outlined above, and “no”, as I agree with Scoble that mere follower count is a poor measure of “authority”. And the conflation doesn’t end there. Most people answering “no” to question two means that attempts to cultivate a large number of followers are misguided. But I don’t agree with that either.

While having a large number of followers may not give any indication of your authority, it does give you access to an extremely powerful mechanical Turk. The original mechanical Turk was an 18th century machine that purported to be able to play chess. It was, however, a hoax as a human hidden inside the machine was actually doing the thinking. The term has had a new lease of life online to refer to the practice of crowdsourcing, which involves harnessing the power of large numbers of networked humans. Now that I have over 850 followers (a very modest count by twitter standards) I have begun to sense the crowdsourcing power of twitter. If I post a question to my followers (aka my “tweeps”), the responses are impressive. Over the last couple of days I used twitter for two different investigations for friends. The first was to seek advice on the best wireless broadband providers in Sydney. The responses were immediate. Here is an example:

Broadband Tweet

My next task was to find out about fertilizer for azaleas and camelias. This was a more obscure question, so I was less optimistic. Yet, here is the response I received.

Flower Tweet

Later I had to clarify what the numbers meant (amounts of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium, if you were wondering), but was extremely happy with the effectiveness of my own personal mechanical Turk. Of course, quality is as important here as well as quantity. If I had not been following @pazaq, my question would still be unanswered. Nevertheless, as my follower count increases, I expect my Turk to become more and more useful.

So while growing your follower count certainly comes behind developing a community inside twitter and engaging in thought-provoking conversation and debate, there is no doubt that there is strength in numbers.

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