Thursday, November 21, 2013

Twitter and the oversimplification of discourse in Social Media


Mark Twain famously began one of his letters with this apology, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Frankly, if a few years ago someone had questioned me about the viability of Twitter, my response would have been a dubious stare and a reference to Mr. Twain’s statement. I would not have believed it possible for people to dedicate the required time to craft a message of 140 characters or less. Had I been asked to invest in Twitter, I would have been just like that guy who refused to sign the Beatles.  

I have recently prototyped an application that scans tweets in real-time, on any given topic, and automatically tries to evaluate the tweet’s sentiment and opinion (check it out at http://www.socialsentience.com). In the process of testing this prototype, I unwittingly became witness to the true nature of the so-called twitter-sphere.  Let alone that in the process of parsing the various tweets, my software had to do acrobatics around heavily used emoticons ( L), or figure out all kinds of acronyms and abbreviations such as omg,  lol, aatk, cuz,  bff, or wtf. Never mind that the software had to perform some miraculous heuristic tricks to figure out language-gone-wild situations. In the end, I came to the realization that there is not a lot of meaningful discourse taking place. I regret to say it, but the quality of most Twitter communications truly sucks.  This is what I think of Twitter in less than 140 characters:  A highly #obfuscatedstream of incoherent dribble, intermixed with lame trivialities, swamped by a morass of hash-tags and mangled hyperlinks.

It almost felt wrong trying to apply sophisticated natural language methods such as chunking, naïve Bayes or Maximum Entropy classifiers, grammar-trees, Lexical corpora, dictionaries and other techniques in order to try to evaluate Tweet sentiments. The experience was like using the Hubble telescope to help a paparazzi spy on a Kardasian. Then again, who am I to judge what’s considered vox-populi or culturally topical? What is really ‘parse-worthy’? And really, why should I blame the messenger? Maybe the problem is that 140 characters is still too permissive a limit to prevent ‘dumbificated’ discourse.  Perhaps, the right direction is to go completely wordless.   The more recent popularity of Instagram or the more ephemeral SnapChat, (who I hear just turned down $3B from Facebook!) makes complete sense in this context.

This gives me a unique idea sure to make me billions of dollars (pinky-finger in the corner of my mouth as I slowly enunciate the word beee-llion.) Why not a social-media site that allows users to enter a maximum of one word?  ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” would be acceptable, and even exclamation marks would be okay, but the space character would be forbidden. (Obviously German users concatenating their words could easily violate the spirit of the site, if not the letter; so German would not be available, or I could restrict the word length to, say, 140 characters. That way, the German word for speed limit, ‘Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung’ would be perfectly acceptable.)

What name should I give it? I thought of yell.com, shout.com, blabber.com and so on with no luck. All these domain names have already been taken, presumably by people with a similar idea. I went the cute route, and searched for shouty.com, blabby.com and other y-ending derivatives. All taken. Finally I struck gold with shouter.com, which, to my surprise, was available. There you have it.  I’m on the road to my next start-up: shouter.com. A social site that will allow you to express yourself in only one word! Coming to you soon!  Or rather Coming!  In the meantime, Facebook, feel free to contact me at your earliest convenience.  Please!