Twitter Starts to Get Down to Business

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Even for someone like myself that regards Twitter as a valuable tool for gathering and disseminating information, it's hard not to be put off by the endless stories of celebs “joining” Twitter – and getting minions to provide a few suitably mindless tweets each day to keep their fans happy. But happily another side is emerging, one that shows how Twitter may well be growing into a powerful new medium with rich business applications.

For example, here's the launch of Microsyntax.org, which has the strapline of “Twitter deep structure” and the following explanation of its aims:

Over the last several months, I have written a great deal about new types of ‘microsyntax’ for Twitter at my Message blog. By microsyntax I mean various ways to embed structured information right into the text of Twitter messages. The most well-known sort of microsyntax are the retweet convention (or ‘RT’) and hashtags (or twitter tags). (I have also referred to this as microstructure, but I believe that microsyntax is perhaps more self-explanatory.)

These microsyntax conventions arose from the user community, and are variably and differently supported by Twitter and the many clients that are in use. Many people don’t remember that the use of ‘@’ to indicate that a message was to be sent to a specific user’s attention (a reply or a mention) is a convention that grew up with the service’s earliest days.

We have some relatively mature conventions — like hashtags (‘#twitter’ or ‘#ruby’, for example) — that have spread into wide use but are not directly supported by Twitter itself, and where different applications may support them in very different ways.

As a result of all this activity, and the potential for collective action in these efforts, we are launching a new non-profit, Microsyntax.org, with the purpose of investigating the various ways that individuals and tool vendors are trying to innovate around this sort of microsyntax, trying to define reference use cases that illuminate the ways they may be used or interpreted, and to create a forum where alternative approaches can be discussed and evaluated. We may even get involved in the development of proof-of-concept implementations that can act as reference architectures for microsyntactic extensions to the Twitter grammar emerging in the real time stream.

In the upcoming weeks, I and other contributors will be enumerating all the known microsyntax for Twitter, and exploring the interaction of those which each other and with other, external applications.

One example of how to add richness to Twitter is found in the new Twitter Data proposal:

Twitter Data is a simple, open, semi-structured format for embedding machine-readable, yet human-friendly, data in Twitter messages. This data can then be transmitted, received, and interpreted in real time by powerful new kinds of applications built on the Twitter platform. Here is an example Twitter Data message:

I love the #twitterdata proposal! $vote +1

The part with the dollar sign, $vote +1, is a piece of data embedded using the Twitter Data format.

When an application knows how to read this data, it can then display it to users or send it to other applications to make Twitter an even more interesting and useful platform. You can see an example of this in the voting widget over there in the right-hand column of this page.

What's important about both of these initiatives is not so much what they are trying to do in particular, but the fact that they see Twitter as something much more powerful than simply a way to broadcast to your followers what you had for breakfast. I predict that we'll be seeing many more of these proposals in the near future; most will fall by the wayside, but what eventuallyy emerges at the other end of this refining process could well be the next key online tool for businesses.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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