Twitter and The Authentic Web

Last week, Jon Stewart had a short but poignant segment about how the major television networks try to leverage Twitter for audience conversation. If you haven’t watched the 5-minute video yet, please do — it’s absolutely hilarious.
Stewart’s montage effectively mocked two things: (1) the major news networks who solicit audience opinions from the likes of people who use Twitter handles like @ladybigmac and @dogfart; and (2) that despite how pervasive and important Twitter is for driving news, Twitter’s lack of an authentication method for unique users exposes a significant weakness as the company seeks to grow their ad business.Stewart’s first point is that the cable news networks should know better. If these journalists, commentators, and pundits are tasked to bring credible information to their audiences, why on Earth are they citing quotes from someone with a Twitter handle called “@ladybigmac”? Aren’t journalists better off soliciting opinions from sources that will look credible to their audience rather than silly?

There are a few explanations for this behavior. It’s possible that no one at the networks, either producers, anchors, or interns fully understands how to use Twitter. Or, they could be using a system that automatically generates @replies for them. Or, they don’t have lots of people replying to them on Twitter and therefore just go after the few that are, regardless of identity. If the audience is interested in politics and sees a quote from @ladybigmac, there’s not much to do other than laugh. However, if the anchors read a tweet from a real name or a more recognizable Twitter handle, in the context of politics, it would add to the experience rather than taking away form it.

Stewart’s second point wasn’t as obvious: social media is great and all, but why are we resorting to pseudonyms like @ladybigmac, even if she is a PhD in American Politics?

Stewart probably doesn’t spend much time on social networks as readers of TechCrunch, but part of how Twitter stands out here is that the other major networks that have emerged all have very high levels of control around verifying and authenticating the identity of their users. While they’re not perfect and it remains possible to receive SPAM via Facebook messages, LinkedIn Mail, or your Quora Inbox, each of those networks are not constrained by a character limit nor using unique name identifiers.

This is not a criticism of Twitter, which is far and away the best place to examine the pulse of a network on specific issues. However, it does highlight a blind spot that will need serious attention if Twitter intends to grow in the manner that it would like to, especially as it relates to news and commerce: verification of users. It would be awesome if Twitter was able to put resources into verifying accounts and tagging them with that tiny blue check mark, as they do for Twitter celebrities — hopefully some of this new $800m fundraising round will be allocated to that, or an acquisition of Klout.As nice as it sounds, it’s really hard for Twitter to go back and verify every account. As has been the case, to be on Twitter, one email address or phone number equals one Twitter account. Many folks I know have at least two accounts. I hope this gets cleaned up, because once it does, Twitter becomes even more powerful.

This the age of “The Authentic Web.” If we want to do things online that effect others and drive commerce, we will have to use our real identities, for the most part. And, to get on hot new social sites, such as, you had to connect via Facebook login only. Part of that is to manage growth, but part of Turntable’s strategy is to measure how their product spreads through the graph, as well as monitoring commenting systems within their product.

A few weeks ago, influential web commentator Anil Dash wrote a widely-circulated post called “If your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault.” Dash points out that the web has become more difficult to manage with more social signals coming at us from all directions, so that there’s a strong incentive for both everyone to adhere to basic level of control for civility in interaction.

That’s the theory, but what about practice? Earlier this year, TechCrunch took an interesting step, replacing their Disqus commenting system with Facebook’s social plugin. Readers were not happy (to the tune of 311 comments, no less). Fred Wilson (and investor in Disqus) felt that it may cost TechCrunch to lose hold its conversation, and TechCrunch contributor and GroupME VP of Business Development Steve Cheney wrote an excellent post about how Facebook’s plug-in has the potential to kill readers’ authenticity by forcing users to write against their real identities at the cost of freely sharing ideas under the protection of pseudonyms.

Finally, “The Authentic Web” may verify user identity, but does not also imply that the people online are being authentic. As I’ve written about earlier, as users become more attuned to various outlets in social media, the web will get cleaned up but also be full of more clever illusions. Sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Quora make an explicit push to not only verify and authenticate users’ identity but also build-in various controls to promote civility. What makes Twitter great is that there are less controls and people can use the site through pseudonyms. But if Twitter wants to fulfill its stated ambition to add a social layer on top of information worldwide and also drive commerce, it has to compromise a bit and take a page from the other networks.

About Semil Shah

Official contributor to @TechCrunch (since Jan 2011); from July 1, will begin EIR with @JavelinVP

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