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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Twitter Groups Done Right! (aka: I hate Hash Tags)

I hate hashtags.

Now, i know hashtags have a place. For very large groups (for instance, those tweeting about the presidential debates all over the country), hashtags make sense. It allows people to search for a given tag and see what anyone has to say about a topic.

But there is a problem with hashtags.
For large, but closed (and relative to the larger Twitter community: small) groups, hashtags are a mess and create all sorts of issues.

Today many geeks, including myself, are at BarCamp in Nashville. They are encouraging everyone to hashtag tweets with #bcn08. But the problem is, I can garuntee you there are people who normally follow myself, Christy, Jackson, Kate, Alison, etc who aren't the least bit interested in BarCamp. Well, tough for them because thanks to only using hashtags, we're going to flood their Twitter feeds with what is essentially a private conversation for those participating in BarCamp.

There is a solution though!

Last year's BarCamp (back in 2007) featured a basic retweet service that searched tweets for a certain string ("BCN") and posted it to one Twitter account (go search back to posts in 2007). This let everyone that wanted to "hear" people talking about BarCamp follow one account and not miss out. That way they don't have to follow everyone at BarCamp and hear them talk about their kids later on. You just hear what they have to say about BarCamp, but nothing else. Awesome.

That was only part of the solution though. There were still issues.

Problem was, it looked for a simple string in any Tweets. In this case it was "BCN". So if, for instance, my buddy Jackson, who i already follow on Twitter, said something with "BCN" in it, i got it twice in my feed. Not to mention the same problem of cluttering feeds with things people don't want still applied.

So, the solution seemed pretty simple: change the retweet engine from repeating based on a simple string, and rather look for people who Tweet @replies to the group account, or better yet, send direct messages to the account.

This gives two levels of filtering:

  • Those who want to have @reply filtering setup on their Twitter feeds (only show @replies to people i'm following).
  • I can keep messages to the group account out of my main Twitter stream by sending it as a DM.
So, i had the brilliant (very very simple) idea (of taking someone else's idea and changing it). But i couldn't code it. My coding-fu has long ago left me and if i can't do it with HTML and basic Javascript, i'm at a loss. Enter Garrett (aka @Phragmunkee). He's a geek in Chattanooga that helped me setup a ReTweet engine for Predators fans.

So, we now have @PredFans. Anyone can post to it by starting a tweet with an @reply (which would leave the post in their normal stream as well), or send a direct message which leaves it out of thier normal stream and says it only to those that want to follow the topic.

This is what the resulting stream looks like:
Clean, simple, and it doesn't clutter up the individual feeds and streams of the users involved.
As you can see, the most important factor is that it allows for very quick, real-time conversations among twitter users in a far better way than traditional hashtags.

It also gives admins more control. While we have @PredFans wide open, you can restrict those that can post to the group to only users you choose to follow with the group account. Creating a closed-posting group that anyone can follow and read.

And yes, Twitter quickly granted us white-list status so we can poll the API twice per minute to check for new posts. We could go faster, but we're running on a borrowed server for now :-)

FYI: We just started a few more groups as well:
Tennessee Titans football fans: @TitanFans
Toronto Maple Leafs fans: @GoLeafs
Edmonton Oilers fans: @OilFans
East Nashville Crime List: @BOLOEastNash
Motorcycle Fans: @MotorcycleFans


David Cintron said...

You sir, are a Tweet-genius. I wondered how the @predfans worked so well. Nice to meet you at the box office window today, and I've got tickets in 303 this Thursday, maybe I'll see ya there!

Rob Robinson said...

I'm fine with hashtags, but you're right. This approach is much better.

Chris Messina said...

Well, "traditional hashtags" were never implemented as they were designed [by me]. The point of hashtags were to enable the creation of ad-hoc groups without having to create a fake/empty account, which is especially challenging when you're on the go or using your phone (also, if you don't actively monitor the account and someone DMs it, you kind of run into a problem).

In my original design for hashtags, you could simply send "mute #hashtag" and you would no longer see tweets with certain hashtags in them. The official Twitter position on hashtags was always that they were ugly (they are) and unnecessary (that's debatable) and only during this election cycle did they start supporting them.

Unfortunately, no one has implemented hashtags completely, and so meanwhile you're left with hacks as you've described to make due for the lack of filtering.

Incidently, you might take a look at Twalala (http://www.twalala.com/).

Paul Nicholson said...

If filters were built in to Twitter, then hashtags would be half-way there. The other thing you'd need to be able to do is follow hashtags ("follow #debate08"). Then you would be able to form large or small groups and conversations on the fly, while not bothering other people.

Unfortunately without filters you bother other people, and without the ability to follow hashtags, you can't see the whole conversation on the fly. You can get close when at a PC, but what makes Twitter so great is the platform agnostic nature of being at a desktop, phone, smartphone, etc and all being able to be part of one conversation. Using search.twitter.com to track larger conversations is untenable from a cellphone.

Twalala certainly seems nice, but until that carries over into Twitterberry, the device-based (SMS) aspects of Twitter, etc it still doesn't really cross that line (and doesn't fix the "follow" problem).

The benefit of the true groups is the ability to join (follow) and leave (unfollow) the conversation at will from any Twitter device. As you say, the downside there is that it needs to be setup in advance.

The benefit of what @phragmunkee has setup for us though, is that i actually could create a group on the fly using a web-based interface (that is WAP browser friendly). We're about 90% to perfect i think :-)

Mike said...

Great solution! Any chance that you'll share the retweet code? I'm also interested in the original hash tag based retweet code. Or is there a service that already does this?

Paul Nicholson said...

We're still working on either commercializing this (free service but ad-driven or something) or releasing the code. Gotta figure out what license we would release it under if we do.

Stay tuned.

TimO said...

any further thoughts on providing the code for this?

AJ said...

Wow, Paul, I am so glad I found this post! When I first discovered @PredFans I really didn't know what to make of it (I really didn't understand how it worked). Then when I followed and you followed me back I finally got it after seeing my tweets reposted there. Howevah, the very problem you mentioned troubled me: the idea of clogging up my feed with all my @PredFans tweets, which appear twice in my tweetstream. I literally have no one else who follows me aside from you guys who gives a hoot about the Predators and I really didn't want to bore them with a conversation they most likely wouldn't care to follow.

But now I know about the DM method to eliminate the main feed inclusion of my @PredFans tweets. BRILLIANT!

This also saves me from bugging you personally aver the issue, which I was just about ready to do.

You might want to think about creating some kind of auto or otherwise standard direct message to new members of the Preds or Titans fans' Twitter groups explaining these options.

Thanks so much to you and @phragmunkee for your great ideas!

Paul Nicholson said...

Added a few more groups to move into our next stage of testing (check the updated post to see the new list).

Things are continuing to develop. We're still trying to decide if we're going to offer the code for donations, or offer a hosted service ourselves (or both).