really? honestly?

Twitter and usefulness

I have a bit of a thing about the usefulness of services. There’s all these great ideas, clever mash-ups, conceptual discussions…but how many of them are actually useful? I’m not going to waffle on here about different models of utility, nor suggest that concepts aren’t incredibly useful in their own way. But what I’m getting at is the sheer, in-your-face, “wow, that makes a real and tangible difference to my decision, my quality of life, my journey” type of usefulness.

This new @tweetalondoncab cleverness from the tweeting cabbie @londontaximan is definitely useful. You ask, and if the resources are lined up in the right way, you get a really useful service right when and where you need it. So, in a slightly more bizarre way was the #tweetbike. If fully developed, a service that told you, accurately, exactly which schools were shut in an emergency would also tick the “massively useful” box. The jury’s out on Mapumental, from mySociety (it has to be as this particular wannabe juror still hasn’t got a private beta log-in to it yet, despite a few nudges…) Oh, and @uktrains is brilliant executed, and very useful.

But in terms of the stuff that flies around attracting most interest on Twitter…a real-time #uksnow map? A Twitter Grader? A #3words meme? They’re Quite Interesting, but they’re not exactly useful. And yet the QI stuff, the novelty, the humour-meme, the flash-mob, is the stuff that often spreads the fastest and widest. I’m making a big caveat here to exclude the likes of #iranelection – hugely powerful mass communication and information sharing for sure, but not purporting to be a ‘service’ as such.

What’s elusive so far is an environment that supports a move from flash mobs to smart mobs, and then to that particular flavour of smart mob: the “useful mob”. From collective intelligence to collaborative usefulness.

So you’d think that something genuinely useful like a crowd-sourced real-time traffic reporting standard would take off, wouldn’t you? Well, not yet…

Along the lines of the way #uksnow worked, I tried:

#uktraffic [road] [where: jcts or place] [direction] [description] RT&seewhathappens

In theory, that’s enough structure to allow reports in that format to be picked up and made Really Useful. It got a couple of retweets (with some prompting…) and I’ll be trying it again, perhaps in response to reports of traffic chaos, or bank holiday weekend etc. But – is there something more fundamental about Twitter that means the novelty of the story will always win out over its actual operational effectiveness?

It might just be that drivers can’t physically (or at least, safely) tweet about road conditions. But their passengers could. Or perhaps a bit of chicken-and-egg: without seeing the useful tools all we’d have is a mass of hard-to-digest information – though search would still be pretty powerful.

We’ll see. Early days still. Why don’t you try firing off that #uktraffic format as above, and see what happens? Or change it to something you like better.

But do try and support (or even launch) useful things, hey?


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2 Responses

  1. […] Paul Clarke speculates here about the usefulness of Twitter, with a specific focus on whether its penetration can be used to local effect: in reporting weather conditions or traffic disruption, for example. […]

  2. AspiringArtists says:

    Does usefulness depend upon the quality of its results or the quantity of its marginal profits?

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