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Saturday
Apr022011

Twitter - An Abstracted Communications Medium

I've lived in San Francisco for about 4 months now, while working at Twitter for the vast majority of it. In that time, i've noticed the various hindrances that take place in international communication. For instance, it seems completely unreasonable that it should cost 10-20 pence for someone in the UK to send an SMS message's amount of data to me in the US—of course negating the outlandish prices that are charged for SMS messages already.

In November, Facebook introduced its new messaging platform which was supposed to do away with the complication of communicating across different media. While many couldn't understand how this might be useful, it has occurred to me that Twitter has been doing this since its dawn.

Let me explain:
I have a Twitter account. Assuming that i follow you, you can send me 140 characters as an email, a text message, or through the method i normally choose to access Twitter; more recently this may even be a push notification through my mobile device. When you send this message to me, do you know where it is going? Do you know how it may be received? In the case of me switching my text notifications from a UK mobile number to a US one, would you even know which country you were sending the message to?

This offers a method allowing someone to send you a short text-based message that you can receive how you wish.

Back at university, we learnt about transparency pertaining to networked file systems. I specifically remember a single slide that detailed the different types of transparency that most networked file systems tried to offer. These transparencies are abstractions from the underlying file systems themselves. They are: access transparency, location transparency, migration transparency and scalability.

  • Access transparency suggests that when using a networked file system, you should access the filesystem through an identical manner to how you'd normally access your local disk.
  • Location transparency offers the concept of being unable to tell where a file is stored.
  • Migration transparency proposes that no matter where a file is actually stored (and even if it is moved), you should always be able to access it through a single filename.
  • Scalability states that the file system should seem boundless.

The questions that i asked earlier should suddenly seem extremely relevant. Twitter seems to possess the same transparencies as an ideal networked file system:

  • Access transparency is held such that you can send a text-based message via an SMS message or another interface (a Twitter client)1.
  • Location transparency is offered since you can not tell where a user is based on their username.
  • Migration transparency is supported since messaging the same username will always result in the same account receiving the message no matter where they are or how they choose to access it.
  • Scalability is a more murky translation in this regard. However, you can potentially send a single user as many messages as you wish2.

That Twitter adheres to these theoretical concepts suggests to me that it is much more than a simple web site, or fruitless social network. Twitter offers an abstracted communications medium, whereby people can communicate without knowing how someone receives their message, or where that someone is.

At Twitter, we strive to instantly connect people to what's most meaningful to them. For some people that involves freely texting "d x5315 What's happening?" to a short code (40404: US; 86444: UK), for some that involves going on to Twitter.com and tweeting "@x5315 you're awesome" and for some that involves opening an iPhone app and loading my Twitter profile. Either way, this is going through a system that allows you to care less about the way you send your message and more about the connection you make.

1. Assuming that a Twitter client is written for how you would like to send a message.
2. Assuming you stick within the API limits.

References (1)

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  • Response
    Last week, Tom wrote about how fairly new online services are affecting the way we communicate overseas. He’s right, of course. To me, the most interesting part is his third sentence: For instance, it seems completely unreasonable that it should cost 1...