Twitter Annotations: Fountain of Creativity or Can of Worms?

On the first day of the Chirp developer conference, Twitter announced “Annotations”:

The feature will allow developers to “add any arbitrary metadata to any tweet in the system.” So, just like a tweet can today be transmitted along with information about which other tweet it was in reply to, or what location it came from, or what application it was created on, now Twitter will allow developers to make up new stuff. Twitter is looking to see how developers use Annotations before it creates any sort of taxonomy for them, Sarver said.

Creative Possibilities

What can such metadata include? Apart from the obvious ones, let us consider possibilities:

  • The number of retweets, faves, could be metadatatwitter-chirp
  • Apps could use plugins to add an “influence-rank” to all your tweets, like your Klout score
  • Apps could let you specify your Google Profile URL or Facebook URL and add that as metadata to your tweets
  • Apps may move all links from your tweets to the metadata section, leaving you the full 140 characters for plain text
  • Apps may move all media attachment links (pics/videos) to the metadata section
  • Number of your followers, number of lists you are a member of, can be metadata for your tweets

Using these, apps can come up with interesting filters that increase relevance for my Twitter experience:

  • Show me tweets from users above an influence-rank threshold
  • Show me tweets from users who have at least x followers or x list memberships
  • Show me tweets from a specific geo-location
  • Only show me tweets that contain links or pics or videos
  • There can be interesting mashups and visualizations based on such metadata.

As apparent from some examples from the top-of-my-head, there are lots of creative possibilities.

The Problem

Annotations will be app-specific. Annotations devised by Tweetdeck will be incomprehensible to Seesmic and vice-versa. There is potential for vast fragmentation here, in the absence of a uniform taxonomy defined by Twitter.

I expect Twitter will wait to see what developers come up with and then absorb the best innovations in its native implementations. In the meantime, Annotations will increase “stickiness” of specific Twitter apps and may be used to lock-in users to certain apps.

Is this a good move on the part of Twitter? I don’t know. But in the absence of guidance from Twitter, this is a free-for-all that will hinder seamless interoperability between different Twitter clients, which may not be good for the ecosystem as a whole.

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  • A guideline should have been given by twitter, else it really does not help the community. Interoperability between clients will be a tricky issue, moving ahead. BTW are tweets losing their worth, why is twitter trying to add value to tweets using Annotations and whats the point giving another user stream like Facebook. Why not just use a twitter app in Facebook and you get a twitter user stream with probably more features that twitter can offer.

  • As obvious from some examples I gave, annotations will simply add value through metadata and not reduce the intrinsic worth of tweets themselves.

    Giving access to full user stream means I can quickly lookup which tweets a user favorited, which new users a person started following, etc. This is similar to, but independent of Facebook. User streams in Twitter and Facebook may be comparable but there are two significant differences – Twitter is public by default and uses an assymetric follow model (I can follow a user stream of someone without being followed back).

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  • We think meta-data is essential to Tweet indexing: and just upgraded our system to add additional meta-data. We use semantic analysis to get and structure this data.

    This allows us to be the only real-time search engine with faceted search capabilities.
    You can see it in action here: (simply mouse over the blue “more” text)

    Twitter's move towards annotation, if implemented well, will dramatically increase the value of Tweets by allowing search engines to use more than recency and/or “retweets” as the basis of their relevancy algorithms.


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  • I definitely like the idea but having annotations as platform specific is going to be a challenge. However, they could also be the killer feature that keeps power users tied to a specific app.

    The more metadata a tweet contains the more intelligent our filters and apps become, perhaps this is a step toward tagging and sorting tweets.

    Hopefully once a few apps begin to show the possibility Twitter might adapt (steal) them into the main system.

  • William, as I said to you on Twitter, thanks for sharing a wonderful example of how annotations will be useful.

    Metadata always helps relevancy, so I completely agree with your thoughts. Thanks for your comment!

  • Well said, Keith. There needs to be standardization, and nothing like it if Twitter leads the way.

  • eriklumer

    Mahendra, there is a middle ground between standardization and free-form. Annotations could have an xml-like schema with some pre-defined tags and room for arbitrary key-value extensions.

    An example of how such annotation schema could look like is provided by Cascaad's “SuperTweet” API (, which provides for any tweet some additional contextual metadata, including a relevance score and the semantic entities automatically extracted from the message.

  • kaprasanna

    Hi Mahindra,

    Have had a brush with twitter4j, an open-source java based api for twitter about 6 months back. (Just out of curiosity. Thought I'll write stuff that 'sn't available in web based interface. Was successful to a large extent too.)
    About the annotations:
    What I understand is, since twitter is encouraging developers to add annotations (metadata as rightly inferred by you) then twitter must have be having a plan to create data structures to store this metadata along with every tweet. And over time twitter will for sure make a common api available and then I think annotations need not be app-specific.

    Congrats on a brilliant post. Short concise and crisp.

  • Great move. When it comes to new ideas, official guidance often has a chilling effect on innovation, by anchoring our perceptions of what something is or should be. Think “push” in the 90s or more recently, “web 2.0”.

    But just as “RT” found itself part of the Twitter culture, this move makes it possible for entrepreneurs to explore new ways to connect, route, exchange, and translate activity between spheres of influence. For example, X-10 is a robust home automation framework. Twitter annotations would theoretically enable more robust authentication and finer-grained control to be sent via tweets to a home network, responding to real-time energy peak usage notifications from the local utility, acting to turn down the AC.

    (I think this is the part of the movie where amazing things are justthisclose from happening.)

  • matthew

    “Apps may move all links from your tweets to the metadata section, leaving you the full 140 characters for plain text”

    LMAO so much for ! no need to use if your tweet real estate is as big as you want ….

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  • It's interesting to see how all the fuss is created around Twitter. It feels like everytime Twitter decides to make one step ahead everyone gets excited about it. Being closed and opening bit by bit has a higher impact than just giving freedom to everyone to do whatever. When Facebook makes some change most of its regular users complain about it, start groups, etc. I guess Twitter is just a more geeky place to be 🙂

  • Glad to see the Cascaad team moving beyond flowing status updates through semantic APIs (that's where I left off with a project before making a big move out of tweetspace). As long as we restricted ourselves to tweet structure, we were beholden to Twitter to provide additional structure. The semantic tagging of tweets is a great move towards relevance, but the world of real time personal data outside of Twitter is also growing (Facebook and blogs that reside outside of Twitter's index).

  • I've got mixed feelings about annotations. I think it's a good idea to keep their format unrestricted but I've recently begun heavily questioning the value of central company social networks. I can easily get real time updates outside of Twitter with as much additional meta data as I see fit, and people can embrace or ignore formats and standards as best fits their needs.

    I assume your blog is push enabled, which means I can get it directly & instantly without rerouting through Twitter. We're on one big social net already, we need to work out some standards for information flow and how to follow people (a neutral nonprofit or user hosted Google/facebook profile).

    I recently moved the origin of my “microblog” updates to Buzz, not because Google's servers are any better than Twitter, but because I have full access to peoples updates there in real time without requesting API access. I can also follow Buzz users from another promising micro blog implementation.

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