AT&T is tracking Twitter updates to aid in its understanding of network failures and glitches, according to a new report from MIT's Technology Review this morning. Using software developed internally by its own researchers, the telecom is listening for user complaints on the social network, and then extracting the tweet's timestamp and location, mapping out where the complaint originated and comparing that data to its system logs and customer service calls.

Details of this operation were reported by MIT's Technology Review, which spoke to AT&T researcher Jia Wang, a member of the company's Internet and Systems Networking Research Center.

Wang explained how AT&T uses two different levels of filtering to parse the data. First, it pulls all tweets somehow related to AT&T and then it uses more specific queries to find tweets directly related to service issues. In the latter case, it looks for messages saying things like "call dropped" or "3G," for example.

"We are trying to identify three pieces of information: where the customer experienced problems, what type of problem, and when they experienced it," Wang explained. Gathering information via Twitter is fast - issues discovered via Twitter were found, on average, 20 minutes prior to customer service phone calls reporting the same problem. It can also help discover issues that would have never been reported otherwise, it was noted. AT&T says it's using the data it collects from Twitter to help prioritize fixes.

Twitter Customer Service Now Becoming Standard?

What's most remarkable about this story, perhaps, is how unremarkable it is. So a company uses Twitter to listen for customer service complaints - well, don't they all?

But the fact of the matter is, they don't. Not yet. We begin tracking this trend over two years ago, when we reported that several companies, including Comcast and Southwest Airlines, had begun to use the young social network to track and respond to customer complaints. (To give you an idea of how new of an idea this was at the time, one of the hot tools being used to tracks tweets was a complicated creation over on Yahoo Pipes!)

Over the years, the Twitter customer service trend has continued. In December 2009, Dell, which ran a number of Twitter initiatives including customer service channels, announced it sold over $6.5 million on Twitter through its @DellOutlet deals. Salesforce.com integrated Twitter into its Service Cloud platform last spring. Helpdesk provider Zendesk announced Twitter monitoring abilities this July.

Today, Twitter sees a number of major brands participating, from Ford to Starbucks and from Samsung to Best Buy. And there are so many others, too. 

There may come a time when your every tweet is captured and analyzed by a company somewhere, somehow. DataSift, a new real-time Twitter analytics product from Tweetmeme founder Nick Halstead, may enable this, in fact. (We're hoping!) But we aren't there yet, not by a longshot.

In the meantime, however, the next time your iPhone drops a call, tweet about it. At least AT&T is listening.