The real-time web, or, Is Twitter really a search engine?

I have been considering recently why we use Twitter. I know why *I* use it: it rocks for networking and collecting and sharing resources, and filtering the web-at-large through my network of other librarians and educators and web junkies. Collectively speaking however, I hear a lot of chatter about the concept of the “real-time web” and Twitter’s usefulness as a real-time search tool. ReadWriteWeb ran an interesting series recently about this topic of the “real-time web”, and it necessarily focused a lot on Twitter because right now it is the focal point of content coming in real-time. (Friendfeed, of course, is also out there, but so many fewer people use it that it gets ignored mostly.)

Hammering home this particular emphasis, the somewhat recent re-design of Twitter’s home page positioned the service as one that is based around Trending Topics and searching. My question is why is there all this buzz around the real-time web and searching on Twitter, when we all know that the Trending Topics are routinely clogged with spam, and even if they weren’t, are mostly about things like Chris Brown’s raunchy bowtie on Larry King, or what Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry are chatting about today. (Not to mention the fact that Twitter only indexes your Tweets in their search engine for around a week and a half.)

Screen shot 2009-09-10 at 2.21.39 PM

With the exception of tracking certain conferences via hashtags, (some of which now are even hard to follow due to spam), sometimes I feel like I am the only one who has never found Twitter Search to be useful. I find it very difficult to argue Twitter’s professional utility when the first thing a new user sees upon visiting the home page is a bunch of strange looking “topics” with odd ‘#’ symbols everywhere and the name Jay-Z three times in big blue font.

And that is not Twitter’s only problem if they want to be taken seriously as a real-time web tool. Slate ran an article recently about why microblogging (and implicitly, the real-time web) is too important for Twitter to be the only service out there. It was produced in the wake of the DDOS attacks that took Twitter offline briefly about a month ago. Imagine your RSS reader: if one blog or feed is down, you only lose access to that particular stream. On Twitter, as it stands now, if one stream is down, they’re all down. As I was writing this, I lost access to my Twitter home page for a couple minutes. What’s real-time about that?

One of the best critiques of Twitter I have read recently came from James Clay in his post entitled “Ten reasons why Twitter will eventually wither and die…” I would love to argue with him about why I think Twitter could outlast some of these things, but instead I am begrudgingly inclined to agree. Unless Twitter realizes its own importance, or the real-time web junkies start exploring new venues into making this data decentralized, then I think we are in for (or in need of) a real wake-up call sooner rather than later.


8 thoughts on “The real-time web, or, Is Twitter really a search engine?

  1. Microblogging will survive even if Twitter does not. I love any tool that allows me to search and this includes Twitter. I sometimes troll around trying all kinds of searches from “UBC Library” and “Web 2.0” to “librarians” and “social media”.

    C’mon, what better activity is there for librarians than search?



    1. Well, I suppose you’re right and I am being too hard on poor old Twitter Search. A search for UBC, now that I am sitting here looking at it, is surprisingly enjoyable. But I just get annoyed looking at the obnoxious spam that invades those pesky Trending Topics.

      I think what it boils down to for me is that I would like to see Twitter promote themselves differently. Imagine looking at that home page for the first time… I think I would see an off-brand Google. Click on one of the topics and you get fourteen tweets all saying “What in the world is #hhlib?” or “Forget about Jay-Z, look at my adult profile!” To my mind, this does not help dissuade perceptions of Twitter as mindless babble.


  2. Good post, dan. I agree with the problem of centralization. I’m tired of people talking about how RSS/Blogs/whatever is dead because of twitter. All of these other things have there uses. Sometimes it’s nice to refer back.


  3. I just signed up for Twitter for this course ( I think the concept of microblogging is good in principle and I look forward to learning and appreciating it more and more. But some aspects of Twitter are just so…backwards. Hachetags (hashtags?) seem like I’m reverting to the days of DOS. Seriously, it’s the 21st century, can’t we do better!


    1. Yeah! And the amount of spam those hashtags generate is gross. But now Twitter just updated their terms of service to ban hashtag and Trending Topic spammers, so hopefully it will improve their utility. That being said, I am rather excited about another social media course being offered at the U of Regina, and is currently subject to a Twitter hashtag: #eci831. We’ll see how things go with keeping track of information as it comes down the pipe there.


  4. It’s odd, I kind of love the trending topics spam. I think it’s because it has become so easy to protect myself from unwanted input online — spam emails rarely make it into my real inbox, and adblockers help on other fronts. It helps that twitter spam is such an odd and sometimes charming mix. (For example, I really love how “goodnight” shows up on a regular basis.)


  5. Regarding spam, Twitter might benefit greatly from a user-generated filter such as Adblock for Firefox. A plugin like this could be built for any twitter client and allow automatic filtering of thousands of spam accounts.

    Jon, I agree about your comparison between hashtags and DOS! That’s what makes me feel most of all that Twitter is new in this experiment of microblogging. If it doesn’t last, people might look back on it and laugh at the codes people use when tweeting. It’s interesting to see how this makeshift mark-up code has developed, though. 🙂


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