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Summary:

Twitter announced a series of new features at its Chirp conference in April, including Twitter Places and an advertising program involving “promoted tweets.” But the one that has the most potential to change the way the network functions in fundamental ways is a feature called Annotations.

Twitter announced a series of new features at its Chirp conference in April, including Twitter Places and an advertising program called Promoted Tweets. But the one that has the most potential to change the way the social network functions in fundamental ways is Annotations, which Twitter said would be rolled out in the second quarter of the year. It isn’t clear exactly how Annotations will be implemented, or how much control Twitter will exert over their use by outside developers, but they could extend the service in a number of interesting directions. At the same time, however, they could also create confusion in the Twitter app marketplace and cause more tension between the company and its developer community.

In a nutshell, Annotations would allow developers (and Twitter itself, of course) to add additional information to a tweet — such as a string of text, a URL, a location tag or bits of data — without affecting its character count. In other words, such information would be metadata about the tweet or the user who posted it, and would be carried along as an additional payload as it traveled through the Twitter network. Apps and services could then collect that information and filter it or make sense of it. In some ways, Annotations are like Facebook’s open graph protocol, which also adds metadata to the behavior of users on certain sites when they’re logged in. Just as they are with Facebook, advertisers are interested in Twitter’s ability to help them target users based on their interests.

slide courtesy of Raffi Krikorian

Developers and programmers such as RSS pioneer Dave Winer have been promoting the idea of Twitter metadata for some time. Winer recently described how it could improve the service if it consisted of especially relevant information — for example, any URL included in a tweet, which would remove the need for link shorteners (including the one Twitter announced recently). Metadata could also yield services based on interpreting it, tracking threaded discussions between specific users, for example, or specific topics. Such interpretation has huge potential for things like movie and restaurant reviews, music sharing, and even purchasing behavior, most of which are already in Twitter’s list of recommended data types for Annotations.

But Google open advocate Chris Messina warns that if Twitter doesn’t handle the new feature properly, it could become a free-for-all of competing standards and markups. “I find them very intriguing,” he said of Annotations, but added: “It could get pretty hairy with lots of non-interoperable approaches,” a concern that others have raised as well. For example, if more than one company wants to support payments through Annotations but they all use proprietary ways of doing that, “getting Twitter clients and apps to actually make sense of that data will be very slow going indeed,” said Messina. However, the Google staffer said he was encouraged by the fact that Twitter was looking at supporting existing standards such as RDFa and microformats (as well as potentially Facebook’s open graph protocol).

slide courtesy of Raffi Krikorian

Rohit Khare, former director of CommerceNet Labs and a key player in the “microformat” community, is also happy to see Twitter experimenting with metadata, but is concerned about the potential impact. “I think it’s important to have standards of some kind so that services don’t start adding things that change the nature of what Twitter is,” he said. “For example, you don’t want to have tweets where the message can’t be understood without seeing the annotations.” Khare said he hopes that Twitter will have some rules that govern the new feature. “Hopefully they will be there as a backstop and a sponsor and a guardian of these features, but will also allow developers to suggest things as well.”

Hiten Shah, founder of KISSMetrics (see disclosure below), says Twitter will have to walk a fine line between telling developers what to do and allowing them to experiment, given some of the tensions between the company and its developer community over the purchase of third-party apps such as Tweetie and the introduction of competing features. “They aren’t exactly on the good side of developers right now,” he said. “I think it’s in their interests to put out some best practices and that sort of thing, but not to be too heavy-handed about it.”

If Twitter can manage to walk that line, Annotations could be a substantial benefit, particularly because they could offer features to advertisers that want to track user behavior and purchasing intent. Khare thinks that while Annotations seem similar to Facebook’s open graph protocol, Twitter’s variation could actually be more powerful. “Twitter’s is wide open, because it isn’t tied to any specific activity on any specific web page,” he said. “With Twitter I can do whatever Twitter or my client allows, whereas with Facebook I can only do what the publisher of the page allows. Twitter annotations could actually lead to more open services and clients that have a bunch of different features.”

Here’s a video of Twitter developer Raffi Krikorian discussing Annotations at a developer conference in London last month — his slide presentation can be seen here:

Disclosure: KISSMetrics is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): What Comes Next For The Web?

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com

  1. Annotations is the perfect project for crowdsourcing a thorough list of possible data types and attributes, and then for letting the user community and “interested parties” vote on the relative merits and value of each. Do I think this idea has a snowball’s chance in hell of being adopted? No.

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    1. Maybe not, but I think that’s a great idea :-)

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  2. Dilip Andrade Sunday, June 20, 2010

    If they had implemented the retweet function using annotations it would have saved so much grief. In its essence, a retweet is just annotating someone else’s tweet with an optional comment from the retweeter.

    Instead we have people using services like tweet longer that are somewhat opaque unless you use specific clients because they can’t fit what they wasn’t to say in the space left after retweeting.

    This could be the bridge that allows the 140 character limit to be maintained while giving people the chance to do or say more.

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    1. I agree, Dilip — thanks for the comment.

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  3. Matthew, thanks for an insightful and thorough piece on a theme that’s just emerging: how annotations recapitulate a whole range of governance issues for the Twitter ecosystem.

    To clarify slightly, Facebook Open Graph chose to encode information in hidden META tags within publisher webpages, an approach that has some accidental risks around accuracy and maintenance of invisible, duplicate information; and some essential risks by limiting the choice of OG properties to the original publisher alone.

    In other words, by default, users don’t control the OG attributes in their FB share actions; but Twitter clients have far more freedom to innovate in that department.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what the community creates with Annotations. I think of them as akin to Closed Captions on TV, which was our intent with Twitter Style Sheets, http://knx.to/rtf

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    1. Thanks, Rohit — and thanks for taking all that time to give me your thoughts about Annotations. I agree it will be very interesting to see what comes out of this initative once developers get hold of it.

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  4. [...] Ingram at Gigagom blogs about an upcoming Twitter feature called Twitter Annotations. Well, it’s not actually a feature. [...]

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  5. [...] Ingram su Gigagom anticipa alcune informazioni sull’imminente uscita di una nuova feature di twitter: le [...]

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  6. [...] Two weeks ago, Mathew Ingram from GigaOM pinged me via my Google Profile to ask what my thoughts — as an open web advocate — are on Twitter’s new annotations feature. He ended up posted portions of my response yesterday in a post titled “Twitter Annotations Are Coming — What Do They Mean For Twitter and the Web?” [...]

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  7. These annotations to add additional information to a tweet — such as a string of text, a URL, a location tag or bits of data — without affecting its character count will be beneficial for tracking and providing more information in tweets. I think its a great addition. @jgwentworth

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  8. [...] Twitter Annotations Are Coming — What Do They Mean For Twitter and … [...]

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  9. [...] – Rohit Khare, former director of CommerceNet Labs [/source] [...]

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  10. [...] Quesada)Twitter plans to support annotations. Since Facebook started supporting RDFa with their openSocial graph, it was just a matter of time [...]

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