Twitter is ephemera by definition. If you missed the joke, the hashtag or the pop-up account borne out of an awkward moment on stage with Clint Eastwood and an empty chair, well… the moment’s over.
But Twitter is also a repository of billions of such moments, many of them considerably more profound than the Republican National Convention’s low point. And now the social network is starting to realize that beyond being a platform where users can connect and express themselves in real-time, it’s also a vast tome of cultural data, from the missives of citizen journalists risking their lives in Syria to tracking the ebb and flow of red vs. blue during the Presidential election season.
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has promised that Twitter users will be able to download their archives in full – and connect those many moments for themselves – by the end of 2012. But in the meantime, a company called Vizify was called in to make sense of it all. Vizify is a cool little Portland, Ore., startup best known for helping users craft graphical bio pages that make Linked In look downright Jurassic.
I spoke with Vizify’s CEO and co-founder Todd Silverstein about the rare opportunity to be brought into the Twitter fold with the 2012 Year On Twitter project – and what all of those 140-character social bursts of fleeting brilliance, pop relevance or sandwich contents are good for anyway.
ReadWrite: What was it like to work with Twitter?
Todd Silverstein: It was really amazing to work with them on a number of levels. It’s Twitter, so they’re the global conversation. And what’s sort of interesting to us… is that they have that whole in-the-moment, rapid-fire, what’s-happening-now thing nailed down… and yet when you step back from it and draw a picture of it over a longer period of time it becomes a really powerful tool for self-reflection. Unlike reading someone’s stream, this is just a really accessible, playful, fun way to get a quick a feel for what someone’s all about.
ReadWrite: How did you connect in the first place?
Todd Silverstein: One of their interns as it turns out was an early Vizify user. They reached out to us, and it was one of our first services so that helped. And we were early adopters of the Twitter Card and of course have been compatible with mobile, and so all of those things I think really fit the profile of how people are using Twitter.
ReadWrite: What’s happened since the tool launched on Twitter’s blog Tuesday morning?
Todd Silverstein: It’s been really lovely to see the conversations that’ve been inspired where people have been like, “Hey, thanks for being the top follower!” And people’s Golden Tweets are really fascinating… of course we’ve had some really interesting personalities.
One that just came through was T. Boone Pickens. And I was so blown away that Jack Dorsey shared his:
ReadWrite: Twitter has promised to give users their entire Twitter databases by the year’s end. What do you think access to such a huge tome of cultural data will yield?
Todd Silverstein: You can imagine… building up a larger history. Then I think you can start doing more interesting kinds of analysis. Imagine being able to look at how your language drifts across years. So you know, in 1980 I was all about “cool beans”… and now I speak in proper sentences, or whatever it might be.
I’m personally somewhat into quantified self and particularly language quantified self, and really, really intrigued by [what happens] once these sets of data become even bigger. There are going to be really fascinating kinds of things that you can do that even a year’s worth of tweets or even 3,200 tweets are not enough of a corpus for.
Of course in literature, there’s always that discussion about inspiration. And to me, once you start using somebody’s technique it doesn’t take anything away from it. To be able to follow some of those subtle influences almost sharpens where people are innovating and where they’re riffing off of others.
ReadWrite: Obviously you have a nuanced view of how all of this could be analyzed. How would you like to see the entire body of Twitter data visualized?
Todd Silverstein: There’s something extraordinarily interesting when you look at what I would describe as the meta-data. Like what is this place? What is this time? Who were you with? There’s the notion of ambient visualization too… your stream as this unique document or script of character. For me, I’m more into, “How does context affect the behavior… how does circumstance – or even the weather – affect the language?”
Already, there’s that movement for the data to be somewhat reductionist. One of the things that Vizify is really dependent upon is not reduction, but in fact adding. Because that’s where people’s personalities and quirks and the rest come out – it’s not in reducing them to, “I am this job, or this series of tweets.”
ReadWrite: How long was the Twitter and Vizify partnership in the works for?
Todd Silverstein: It came together pretty quickly. It was in the works for only about six weeks… we had 30 days to increase our ability to scale by about 10x. That was the mighty engineering war that was being fought.
ReadWrite: Are you guys hungry for more big data partners in the future?
Todd Silverstein: We love the notion of partnering with others who have these massive data sets. Our passion is for visualization… and helping people understand or share that for themselves. And so when someone like Twitter who’s all about the massive mountain of data reaches out, that’s always really interesting to us. There are so many awesome visualizations we’re itching to go build.
ReadWrite: Twitter isn’t exactly known for playing nice with third-party companies. Did you get that vibe working with them?
Todd Silverstein: We felt exactly the opposite. We found it really easy to integrate with their API. Everyone we worked with at Twitter on this project was extraordinarily helpful. I think they were very encouraged by what we were doing… it was adding a new kind of value or a new dimension to what people were already doing.
No one owes you anything, and things change, and those are things that you need to respond and adapt to. We just understand that that just sort of comes with the the territory of working with other people’s APIs – with big companies that have their goals and strategies. Hopefully you do something that’s interesting enough to not find yourself in conflict.
ReadWrite: Do you think that the 2012 Year On Twitter undertaking dovetail with the Twitter Stories project – or the trend that Twitter wants to connect all of these little micro-moments into something more significant?
Todd Silverstein: I hope they do more of this in the future… they have the conversations. The data is there, it does tell a story – and it can be assembled.