I gave up on Twitter twice before finally “getting it” years ago. I became a fan of the tool when I realized Twitter could send me every tweet that included certain words or phrases — even if I didn’t follow the people who posted those tweets.
That feature went away years ago, but I was reminded of it recently when Danny Sullivan at Marketing Land wrote about an idea to help Twitter gain and keep new users. Danny imagines a Twitter where people follow interests instead of accounts. If you follow sports, for instance, you see all sports-related tweets posted by anyone.
Words instead of interests
Instead of following interests, I suggest that Twitter resurrect the ability to track specific words or phrases. When I search Twitter for “data journalism,” I want an option to “follow” that search. Selecting that option would tell Twitter that I want to see tweets like this one in my main timeline, even if I don’t follow Nicholas Jackson:
What are some good examples of data journalism/visualizations? (Help for a USC Annenberg project I’m working on. No burritos, please.)
— Nicholas Jackson (@nbj914) October 30, 2014
My concept addresses a concern that a Marketing Land commenter brought up with Danny’s interest-based approach. If Twitter offers general interests, like sports, the results would be too broad to be useful. In my model, a person could be more specific by following tweets that contain “World Series,” or “Lakers,” or “Landon Donovan.”
Twitter can’t just flip a switch
Unfortunately, the ability to follow specific words never really existed in the way that I’ve described it.
Once upon a time, Twitter supported instant messaging, so you could tweet and read tweets by chatting with Twitter from an app like Google Talk (now Google Hangouts) or AIM. It was through instant messaging and SMS text messaging, that you could tell Twitter that you wanted to “track” a term. Here are some other Twitter commands that worked back in 2008.
Twitter stopped supporting IM clients six years ago, and the “track” command is absent from its current list of SMS commands. With the incredible volume of tweets being sent nowadays, I don’t think it would be wise to re-introduce the “track” command to SMS messaging or to revive support for IM.
If my proposed idea is a simple one to implement, it could help journalists quickly find value in Twitter by letting them track terms and public figures relevant to their beats. It could help companies quickly find value in Twitter by letting them track industry terms and competitors. If it helps attract and keep new users, it could help shareholders find greater value in Twitter.