Maybe, Just Maybe, Twitter's On To Something With Metrics

Speaking Monday, Twitter co-founder and board member Ev Williams described what he'd like the microblog to be when it grows up. Some fear that he wants to merchandise tweets the way Hollywood merchanises movies. But for the first time in months and months, I saw the glimmer of a Twitter that I could learn to love.

“The 'dream' metric is how many people saw your tweet,” Williams said. What does he mean, exactly?

Williams pointed to the follower count as a blunt instrument. It has always been the de facto measurement of how powerful a Twitter poster is, but it doesn’t mean much. Not all followers are equal. Hundreds might be porn bots. Or you might have just 31 followers who lovingly retweet everything you post.

So a better measurement of how important you are on Twitter is how many people you reach, not just how many once clicked "Follow." Reach is how many Twitter feeds your tweet ended up in, whether directly or from a retweet. It's also how many people viewed your tweet embedded on a site or in a blog post. And those aren’t even all Twitter members!

But that’s not all that Williams dreams of measuring. Twitter could also measure the activity generated by your tweets -- retweets, favorites, replies -- to see how much people care about them.

All this stuff would be would be much more useful for figuring out one's Twitter strength at a glance.

Here’s the rub.

Twitter is cut from some data when people use third-party Twitter clients like Twitterific and Tweetbot. Those apps add all kinds of ways of interacting with tweets that are built on top of Twitter, not built into it.

In August, after promising to do so for a long time, Twitter began to crack down on third-party apps and unofficial ways to display tweets. Twitter isn’t cutting off outside Twitter apps -- at least not right away -- but itis being much more strict, particularly about displaying tweets.

Now, I hate this change. I think it breaks the very idea of what I loved about Twitter, and I strongly advocate for alternatives that are more supportive of independent developers of new experiences.

But what Williams said Monday made me take a longer view for the first time.

If Twitter controls its entire information pipeline, it can get more accurate readings of what’s going on in there. Everyone who’s opposed to Twitter’s trajectory knows that this will help the company make a lot of money by better targeting ads.

That’s the whole problem; it feels like what’s good for ads is bad for us.

But what if there really are “dream metrics” that would make Twitter more meaningful to us, too?

No one likes a popularity contest, and that’s what follower counts are. By definition, they’re discouraging to most people. They make some feel insignificant. A more robust metric could create a more nuanced and useful picture of how people succeed or fail on Twitter.

Maybe Twitter will find some lasting value in its messages that that can only be captured if it controls the whole service. Maybe that value is a more personally empowering way to use Twitter.

Maybe.