Hello Dali

Twitter has dabbled for years with providing visibility into the realtime stream of attention and gestures. Its Track functionality allowed users to set up a communications interface around certain keywords, most notably the @username. Born of a user gesture first called the @reply, the feature survived the removal of Track in various forms, most recently as a separate view dubbed the @mention. This week, Twitter expanded that view.

Of course, I had to read MG Siegler or watch Scoble on the Gillmor Gang to experience the two new streams, which apparently roll up not only my and my followers’ @mentions but Favorites, retweets, follows by others, and notifications of domain name cancellations. No, that last part’s not true, it’s sponsored domain cancellations. No, there’s something else but I can’t find it because it’s not available on my iPad or any other client but the Web client, which requires a non-iOS browser. So much for open.

Perhaps I’ll have to wait for iOS 5 to see the new streams. The new update features enhanced cooperation between Apple and Twitter, along with the single most important feature of all, the notification bus modeled after Android’s top-of-screen alerts. By making notifications non-interruptive, iOS effectively supports a mobile version of XMPP notifications on the desktop. This was the vehicle through which Track made its way into Google Talk’s IM windows as a realtime notification stream. It was also the first thing turned off as FailWhales brought Twitter to its knees.

Without Google+ I wouldn’t be so optimistic about @mention stream access via API. But with + citations now being injected into Google Social Search, we have an alternate route for this kind of Track-like functionality. Not because of its current stream, which seems devoid of any actionable information. I did a quick check of Facebook’s stream this weekend and found it much more useful. But now that + threads are promoted in Social Search, that should prove an incentive for people to populate their streams with references to news and posts both external and internal.

Once the stream is seeded with fresh trout, Google can turn to surfacing these objects in its iOS clients. As we get closer to iOS 5, this will put pressure on Twitter to do the right thing with API support, or in the case of its own clients, surfacing the new views in an alert format. But none of the political games would be necessary if Twitter recognizes an opportunity to popularize the @mention stream as the best way of keeping up with realtime.

Let’s reverse engineer this new Twitter release to get at the heart of the problem. Before the change, there were two ways to navigate the stream. A last in, first out stream of those you follow and their retweets of those you might not. And second, the @mention stream of posts containing a reference to your @username. The @mention stream is by definition high value, but it relies on your personal cloud of influentials to keep you up to date with important citations. The aggregate result is sampling the verbose main stream and being alerted by the more sparse one.

Push notification of a group @mention editorial strategy is one way to expand the alerting mechanism and reduce the drive by sampling. The new @mention view extends Twitter’s recent email notification of @mentions and Favorites (follows have always had email notifications), but the second Activities view surfaces the signals of those we follow. Certainly the immediate goal is to amplify the street cred of these messages, generating metadata that can be injected back into the flow in ways more consumable than a realtime LIFO view.

Among the valuable network effects produced by these streams is an aggregated sense of our social graph and its weight in the Activities graph. By comparing the value of these external streams, Twitter can give us access to a socially tuned stream that mirrors our collective interests. In turn, that stream is more likely to produce a push notification stream that will not overwhelm us.

Such a notification stream will produce the long-sought business model Jack and Dick are after. No amount of Google+ maneuvering or Facebook stream rewrites can reduce this opportunity for Twitter. The steps are obvious: incentivize the creation of the data by making it visible, incentivize the partner community by releasing the API, and then lock down its native clients when iOS 5 appears. Or as Walt Disney once said: Hello Dali.