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How Twitter accidentally fostered the universal presence

How Twitter accidentally fostered the universal presence


Is Twitter sitting on the secret to universal online presence?

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Twitter (zpower)
Twitter (zpower)

This is a follow-on to an editorial that I wrote last year, The universal status indicator.

@verge. @zpower. What are those? They're Twitter handles, of course; but I didn't need to tell you that. You already knew.

Twitter is in that elite circle of web brands — Facebook, Google, Amazon — that have legitimately "crossed over." Your parents, though they may not fully understand it, have certainly heard of it by now. The President of the United States uses it. Oprah uses it. It doesn't get any more mainstream than Oprah.

And along with mainstream success, the "@name" format has become inseparably intertwined with Twitter. It's like an email address or a URL: you don't need to specify what it is, you just need to list it. "Find me at @zpower," you understand what I'm saying. Amazingly, that's something that the $100 billion darling Facebook — with over six times as many active users — doesn't have. There's simply no Facebook equivalent to @zpower: I can tell you to "check me out on Facebook at [some URL]" or I can tell you to search for me by name on Facebook, at which point you may or may not find the correct Chris Ziegler. But there's no single-word handle format that's universally recognized as a link to a unique Facebook profile. (Google's giving it a go with the "+Chris Ziegler" styling, but it doesn't do you much good — you can't zip over to a Google+ profile by typing "," and regardless, Google+ enjoys a mere shadow of Twitter's mojo.)

It doesn't get any more mainstream than Oprah

Every day, recognition of the @name format grows among web-connected individuals, and that growth continues seemingly unbounded. It's unclear whether Twitter recognizes the power that it has the ability to wield with this. Of course, the company is just as focused on its core business — 140-character broadcasts — as ever, but it'd behoove Dick Costolo and his team to take a hard look at the potential they've fostered.

Last year I wrote an editorial, The universal status indicator, in which I bemoaned the internet's inability to rally around a standard for communicating presence and contact information. It got extraordinarily positive reaction — there's a real need here. And it turns out that Twitter is uniquely positioned to strike: it already has the universally-understood ID format under its belt. People have heard of it; you're not asking for the moon by starting at square one and requiring people to sign up for yet another service that won't be of any benefit without massive buy-in, the classic chicken-and-egg problem for online startups. And unlike every other service on the market — Facebook and IM services included — Twitter has tight integration with every mobile platform that matters. This is deeply critical; the hooks are already there in iOS, Android, and even Windows Phone.

Twitter, you're sitting on my business card

What remains for Twitter is the easiest part: add some fields to its spartan user profile pages and update its mobile applications to take advantage of the richer back end. Allow users to specify whether they're available, how they can be reached, and who should be able to see what information. When a phone number or email address changes, make sure the mobile apps pick up the change and offer to update users' address books.

Not everyone will support the concept of a single service becoming the clearinghouse for this type of information, but guess what? No one has stepped up to fill this gap in a meaningful, broadly-supported way, despite the enormous opportunity. (Go on, ask a non-techie friend or family member if they've heard of And furthermore, it's not possible to develop something like this without massive, reliable, scalable database infrastructure to support it. That infrastructure doesn't grow on trees. Twitter's already there, and it's spent years taking its lumps (fail whale, anyone?) and learning lessons while it supports close to half a billion tweets a day.

Twitter: I never want to have to send out an email blast saying my phone number is changing again. You're sitting on my business card — it's @zpower. Please let me use it.