Why the real power of Twitter is in search

Twitter has given us a real-time Wikipedia

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Twitter has gained a significant amount of publicity since its inception in 2006, but it has also consistently split the wider internet community right down the middle.

Some people love it, others just can't see the point.

I should declare my position here. I don't currently tweet, never really have, and don't fully understand the platform. I've experimented, had a look around, and not really found a use for the service.

I have written in the past that I don't really see a reason for all the fuss, and like many other people thought it was all just a bit of a passing fad.

Then I discovered search.twitter.com, and Twitter became something very different. It became a real-time search engine. The individual posts I had previously dismissed where contributing to something bigger, something more cohesive and useful. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Real-time local search

Getting off the tube from work last week, I was greeted with quite a scene. The high street was closed off, spectators were gathered, and traffic was being diverted.

A number of police cars and a few ambulances added to what looked a little like a warzone. Being curious about what was going on, I did a quick Google search when I got home. Zero results. This isn't too surprising as the event was still happening.

Searching Twitter proved to be an altogether more productive experience. I was presented with several tweets discussing the incident in question. A few of them where speculation, one was claiming to see the accident that had started everything, and another recounted a conversation with one of the police officers involved.

Twitter was giving me information on events happening right now. It felt like I was almost there at the time.

A slightly more frivolous example involves some fireworks that were keeping me awake late one evening. Unsure that they were indeed fireworks, I tried a quick Twitter search and, lo and behold, it provided the answers. A number of people had tweeted their surprise that fireworks from a not-so-local festival could be heard across the Thames in South London. Twitter had delivered again.

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Power in numbers

These are two very simple examples, but they demonstrate an emerging concept that has the potential to develop into something very exciting. While individual posts on Twitter may seem trivial, together they form something much more useful.

Want to know what the special is at the local deli? More importantly, want to know how it tastes? Easy, search Twitter.

Want to find out how that press conference is going on the other side of the world? Don't follow loads of live blogs – simply search Twitter.

Imagine the impact on world events like 9/11 or World War II when you can access real-time updates from people who are actually there – updates that aren't controlled by governments or press agencies, but contain feelings, commentary and thoughts from real people. You only have to think back to the recent government elections in Iran to see how Twitter can be used in this way.

The future of real-time search

Let's take a peek into the future. People already tweet from mobile devices. Imagine this trend continues as Twitter's user base grows. Suddenly, whereever you are, you can document your thoughts on Twitter, including photos and video as you wish.

Imagine a real-time Wikipedia offering you a view of the world you couldn't physically access on your own. It isn't a huge leap to think of it as a collective consciousness that you can tap into at any time.

What if we combine this idea with the current darling of the tech world – augmented reality?

Tweets could be overlaid straight onto my view of the world. Instead of tube stops, historical facts, or the nearest Starbucks, I could see the real-time thoughts of customers as they leave shops. The applications for this kind of real-time commentary are boundless.

Real-time search, using Twitter and similar services, has a massive role to play in the future of our internet-connected communities.

Google can tell me what happened last week and give me a map on how to get there. Twitter can tell me what's happening right now – and that's something very powerful indeed.


Chris Wright is an IT professional working for a digital design agency in London. He writes about a range of technology topics and is happy to read the thoughts of anyone on Twitter who knows what that noise is at the end of his road.

Visit Chris Wright's website

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