A Brighter Idea

Towards the end of January I made the distinctly untrendy decision to give up on updating my Twitter account in favour of using Brightkite instead. Talk about swimming against the tide; Currently the world + dog & other assembled pets are washing up fail whales in a tsunami of tweeting.

But, after almost a year of daily use, I’ve decided the world’s largest text adventure isn’t for me.


Well, the reasons are numerous and, the more I thought about it, the fewer good reasons I could find to keep using the media darling that is Twitter.

For example, as a networking aid, Twitter falls well short of being an adequate tool for the job. Over the course of 2008 I made exactly zero “friends” aside from those I already knew in real life. Unless, of course, you count the legions of spammers who had fake-followed me during that time – not exactly a good advertisment for a “social network”.

I suppose if I’d chosen to enable the auto-follow feature that has Twitter users finding themselves reciprocally followed by everyone from The Pussycat Dolls to Stephen Fry, then I guess I really could have reaped the benefits of that particular cyber-ego massage. However, having followers was not in itself my motivating factor in using Twitter.

To me, it was the ability to post observations and musings that did not in themselves constitute a worthwhile blog post, as well as keeping friends & family updated with what I was doing during the constant travelling I was doing last summer.

The micro-blogging (and I use the latter part of that term with the heart felt reluctance of someone who kept an online journal long before it was called a “weblog”) format of Twitter is, to a large extent, the charm of it. Unfortunately it’s the stream of crap from the prolific fake followers and spam marketeers that taint the experience.

Even when there’s a post with some substance, with only 140 chars to play with it’s hard for the poster to include the full compliment of who, why, what, where and when components in a tweet. So, towards the end of 2008, I began adding the geo-location features of Plazes.com as a useful way of augmenting my posts with some “where” information. I’d update Plazes with where I was and let that update Twitter for me before I posted on Twitter itself.

Which was great, except that I was having to use two sites to do one job and, when posting to Twitter, you should strive to answer the question “what are you doing?”

With that, I assume that those behind Twitter had the commendable intention of keeping the stream bereft of mindless bollocks. Not to mention that answering said question is a good way to get the ball rolling when you’re first using the site. Clearly “I’m in the pub” or “I’m at the airport” aren’t in the spirit of things, but since answering the question isn’t something that’s enforced by anyone other than the individual user, there’s plenty of scope for the mindless bollocks, anyway.

The likes of TwitterFeed, Ping.fm, hellotxt, and the umpteen other sites that let you ping every single social network with a single update have ensured that “answering the question” is far from the motivating factor behind a very high percentage of the tweets.

So, the sheer weight of people not “playing by the rules” in the absence of any policing means that the public stream is indeed a gushing torrent of sewage with the occasional pearl of wisdom being swept along with the floaters. The only thing that does, in fact, seem to be policed on Twitter is the creation of spoof accounts. Impersonate somebody famous, even in obvious parody, and you’ll find the account locked down in no time.

Call me cynical, but as someone who was down in London at the height of the dotcom boom, I can only presume that the creators don’t want to be sued or to encourage any negative publicity that might damage either the possibility of future rounds of funding or of a monetising acquisition of some kind. I witnessed that kind of thing the first time round, butI don’t think I ever saw such a weak attempt at trying to monetise a website than that of those behind Twitter.

Curiously, despite a pace of development that could only be described as glacial (not too many costs there, then), it makes zero revenue, yet somehow has managed to obtain another round of funding in the midst of a global recession.

To do what? Design an alternative graphic to the oft-seen fail whale?

Aside from some layout tweaks and half-assed attempts to further web 2.0-ify the whole house of cards (like capturing the submit button with some half-assed AJAX bollocks that neither refreshes the stream or works on all browsers), Twitter.com is the oft-down poster child of Ruby on Rails that hasn’t come any measurable distance from the day it was launched.

This lack of development has led to a raft of third party applications that have sprung up to rake the good bits out of Twitter. Curious business model – assuming there is one – build a web service that everyone else gets rich from aside from yourself!

The frustration with the limitationss of Twitter and the clutter involved in using all the third party apps to make it truly useful is where Brightkite came in, for me. Here is a concept with grand ideas that envelope the likes of Twitter and Plazes, yet push the boundaries of microblogging so that I can post a picture via web or email and then cut out the global noise by allowing me to localise the feed.

I can choose to show my exact location to close friends, let my other friends see roughly where I  am, and leave the general public guessing. I can make the privacy settings location specific, so that if I’m at my office or in public places I can share my exact location without it affecting my privacy for when I’m at home.

Then there’s the fact I can have an offline conversation that might spring from a post in Brightkite without being subjected to the suffocating limitation of 140 characters. Hence, I’ve taken part in some great exchanges on subjects such as web development, gadgets, and parenting with total strangers, then made friends from doing so. That is a social network.

Over the festive period I noticed that some functionality was broken on the mobile version of Brightkite. So I post a message directly at Brightkite asking if it’s going to be fixed. The same afternoon I had a response saying they were taking care of it. Couple of days later I had another message saying it was proving more tricky than they originally thought. Next day I had a message saying it had been fixed.

That’s fantastic, and shows me that the site is being actively developed on a daily basis, not  waiting around for some fat cat to come in and pay-off the founders to take it off their hands.

To me, Brightkite is the future of microblogging (for want of a better term), and I don’t believe there are any others out there equipped to offer the same feature set now that the cliquey Pownce has come and gone.