Last week, Twitter made a huge announcement about a feature that will fundamentally change the service when it finally goes live. Beginning sometime next quarter, the company will roll out annotations, metadata that clients can attach to tweets. Generally we think of tweets as 140 characters or fewer, but there's already quite a bit of metadata on every tweet, including information about the author and the geolocation of the tweet. Annotations will increase this dramatically: at the start, Twitter is saying that the total size of annotations per tweet can be up to 512 bytes (128-512 UTF-8 characters). But over time, they hope to increase that payload to 2K.
Annotations can (and will) be used in very interesting ways, basically adding semantic structure to what is now only a sentence or two. I could tweet my feelings about a movie I just saw and, in the annotations, add my rating of the movie and a link to its IMDB page. Or if I'm tweeting a link to a web page, the client could put the link in the annotations, freeing up all 140 characters for me to actually describe the link (also obviating the need for URL shorteners). The possibilities are literally endless.
And therein lies both the problem and promise of annotations. They will be almost completely open-ended. The only spec Twitter is providing is that each annotation will be a triple of namespace, key, and value. Each tweet can have one or more annotations, and each namespace can have one or more key/value pairs. Everything else will be up to the "developer community:"
Annotations are a blank slate that lend themselves to myriad divergent use cases. We want to provide open-ended utility for all the developers to innovate on top of. Some of us have initial ideas of cool potential uses cases that I'm sure we'll start to share just to seed the conversation as we get closer to launch. Developers will experiment with annotations. Certain ideas and approaches will catch on. Certain annotations will become standards democratically because everyone agrees. Some might have diverging opinions. It's something that we hope will grow organically and be driven by sociological and cultural forces.
This means that Twitter client developers like Seesmic and Tweetdeck (and now Twitter itself) will either have to agree upon a set of standards or be content to live within a somewhat chaotic system. This is a very bold move, one that is borne out by the "standards" that have already grown organically in the platform (like the RT, @ and # qualifiers).
But this time it's different. When those qualifiers became standard, Twitter was a small, niche service catering to bleeding edge geeks. It wasn't so hard to get such a small, tight community to agree on things. But now that Twitter has more than 100 million users, I'm not so sure it'll be as easy. But it will be fun to watch.
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