Twitter is on a fast growth path, as shown by recent data, but then the same data show Tumblr growing even faster.
What’s the story?
Ultimately, everything important will appear in the streams first — like the stream of URLs in Twitter, and the stream of reblogs and likes in Tumblr — and those companies that own the streams will be in the best position to provide the complete liquid media user experience to users.Twitter and Tumblr strongly diverge in their treatment of tags. Tumblr has implemented tags as first class metadata, explicitly supported by the Tumblr system, while Twitter continues to treat tags as microsyntax: text conventions invented by users, embedded in the messages. And I think this is a mistake for Twitter, and for the community.
You might counter my claim by saying, “Hey, wait! I use hashtags all the time, and so do others! Twitter supports their use!” But you’d be wrong. Twitter treats hashtags as text, just like all the other characters in a tweet. So if you write a tweet like this —
@JohnFontana: @DeepakChopra channeling his inner @stoweboyd #140conf
— and the ‘#140conf’ text represents that the tweet pertains to the 140 Character Conference (where I spoke yesterday, and so did Deepak Chopra). The important thing to realize is that Twitter does nothing special with the hashtag: it merely retrieves tweets that have that text in them during searches. Period.
Contrast that with the convention of the at sign (‘@stoweboyd’ ‘@deepakchopra’) that originally arose from users indicating who a tweet was intended for, but which Twitter adopted and built into the system at a deep level. Ditto for retweets, which was originally ‘RT’ text, and now is now implemented operationally, as a kind of message. Not so with tags.
Tumblr, on the other hand, like most blogging tools, has rich and deep support for tags. In the editor, the user can add tags to posts:
And knowledgeable users can take advantage of the tags, for example, typing in the URL to access posts with a certain tag, like ‘www.stoweboyd.com/tagged/curation’, which leads to Tumblr creating a tag page (or pages) with all the posts with the tag.
Perhaps even more interesting is the recent push by Tumblr to integrate tags with curation in the relatively new Explore capability. Basically, Tumblr has decided that a list of a few dozen very popular and broad categories — like ‘Tech’, ‘LOL’, ‘Comics’, and ‘Fashion’ — should be curated by a mix of algorithm and editorial oversight. Like a media company might do.
Below, you can see the Explore page for Tech, with the Featured tab selected. This is the view that is curated by a group of Editors, selected by Tumblr’s staff, and provided a different version of the Tumblr dashboard (something I have yet to see, either directly on in a write-up).
You can see that I am featured as a Top Contributor this morning, along with Smarter Planet and a bunch of other folks.
Note that I carefully called the Tech page on Explore a category, and not a tag, per se. I think that what Tumblr has done is create a mapping from a long long list of tags, like ‘apple’ ‘pc’ ‘iphone’ and ‘twitter’, and mapped that to the Tech category. That means I don’t have to explicitly tag my posts as ‘tech’ to be included.
And tags can be pulled from across the entire Twitter universe, using URLs like ‘www.tumblr.com/tagged/paris’ or ‘www.tumblr.com/tagged/liquid_media’. These are examples of tags that have not been promoted to curated categories, like ‘Tech’ or ‘Fashion’, but in the future, Tumblr could always expand the roster of curated categories.
So, Twitter could learn from this in the following ways:
- Tumblr tags are metadata, and could be built-in more natively into the Twitter experience. For example, just as Twitter is now analyzing URLs and shortening them in the various clients, a similar analysis and indexing could go on for hashtags, either at the point of posting or at the point that a tweet from an external client enters the Twitter API.
- The API could be extended so that tweets could be explicitly associated with tags, and these could be used to form queries, as well, like fetching the list of all the tweets I have made tagged ‘#140char’ or ‘#paris’.
- Tag streams could be configured in a way similar to Tumblr Explore categories, and these could be either totally automatic — like the ‘All’ tab in Tumblr — or could be curated. Twitter could play the same role in curation as Tumblr is: picking editors and allowing the editors to identify top contributors.
Point 3 — where Twitter builds and manages its own liquid curation system, right in the Twitter application, as another set of Twitter owned-and-operated streams — is an enormous opportunity for Twitter, and one that would drive a stake in the heart of a dozen start-ups that are trying to make a business around topical influence on Twitter, like Klout, or media businesses, like Flipboard, Xydo, and News.me. But Twitter has not showed any reluctance in clobbering the ecosystem of quasi-parasitic companies living lamprey-like on the Twitter underbelly.
And, if coupled with a few other flourishes — like Flipboardish social journal display based on the URLs in the stream — Twitter could also destabilize the tablet media market pretty dramatically, and increase the company’s valuation dramatically.
By exploiting tags and their role in curation, and quietly repositioning the company as a media player, Tumblr is a giant step ahead of Twitter.Ultimately, everything important will appear in the streams first — like the stream of URLs in Twitter, and the stream of reblogs and likes in Tumblr — and those companies that own the streams will be in the best position to provide the complete liquid media user experience to users.
By exploiting tags and their role in curation, and quietly repositioning the company as a media player, Tumblr is a giant step ahead of Twitter.
[Update: 17 June 3:41pm EST — I have been informed by a commenter that hashtags are parsed by Twitter, and any hashtags embedded in the text of a tweet are accessible. But my real point stands: Twitter doesn’t develop that into a rich user experience. And the other ways that hashtags could be used in the API — like given a hashtag, show me all the tweets using it — would have to be implemented by an external program.]