How libraries can learn from Twitter

29 May 2009

This morning an interesting Tweet arrived on a subject that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately:

there seem to be more people using twitter apps than twitter web. What is twitter doing wrong?
@katykat

In April 2008, ReadWriteWeb carried out a study How We Tweet: The Definitive List of the Top Twitter Clients that showed that only 56% of Twitter users used the web interface. My gut feeling tells me that that figure is lower now, given the growth of use of devices like the iPhone. 

This is a perfectly valid question to be asking in the context of a traditional website. But Twitter isn’t a website, it’s more than that, it’s a service like email. You are not restricted to interacting with your email via one particular method. Likewise, by building upon Twitter using their API’s you are not restricted to using their service in the one and only way that you can, you have choice in how you interact with their service. The important thing isn’t the website, it is the service. Twitter.com could basically become a one page website and as long as the API’s were maintained the service would continue as normal for much of the twitter community. The user has a variety of choices in interacting with the service based upon their personal preferences. They can choose the relevant application based upon interface they like and the features they are going to use.

Flickr, despite having a far greater number of API’s available, hasn’t followed the same path as Twitter. Most people still interact with Flickr via the standard web interface. This is mostly due to their terms of use which forbids people replicating the user experience of Flickr:

Use Flickr APIs for any application that replicates or attempts to replace the essential user experience of Flickr.com

Rev Dan Catt who up until recently worked at Flickr said:

I’ve often joked that I could probably get more stuff done working with the Flickr API outside of Flickr than inside.

 So to answer the question, I really don’t think Twitter is doing anything wrong, they are doing everything right.

What can Libraries learn from what Twitter and to a lesser degree Flickr, are doing? Can we start to think about our catalogue (or other core services) not as a website, but as a service. The website version of the catalogue may just be one aspect of the delivery mechanism for the information we wish to distribute. Why can’t we look at providing our services to our users in any way they wish to be able to interact with them?

Why can’t we provide specialised access to our catalogues to specific user groups, so they (or anyone) can create:

  • a simplified interface for high school users without all the complex features they don’t use
  • allow an historical society to create an application based upon their needs
  • an complex view of the catalogue for academics or librarians
  • a visual or geographic based search
  • a social network based around the catalogue

Institutions like the Brooklyn Museum and collaborative efforts such as DigitalNZ are providing their content to developers to do exactly this sort of thing. It’s very early days still and it will be interesting to see what starts to develop.

Let’s start thinking about interacting with the service, not the website.

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3 Responses to “How libraries can learn from Twitter”

  1. Mal Booth Says:

    Thanks Paulie, this is just in time for me. And one difference is that this year I first saw anything about your post on Twitter. Last year it would have been Google Reader and the year before word of mouth I suppose, maybe on a Monday night?
    I agree that libraries have a lot to learn from both Twitter and Flickr – even the basic web interfaces they offer – and the growing number of APIs we are now seeing, particularly to do with Twitter. The APIs provide personalised, tailored, bespoke add-ons and changes that people want. Nobody is really controlling much of that, but libraries don’t really like operating in a space that isn’t controlled. So maybe in that way we are a bit like what Rev Dan Catt said about Flickr: you can get more stuff done working outside the library (assuming the data is open!) than inside it?

  2. Paul Hagon Says:

    Definitely. Control is seen as power. Control is an outdated concept. Control is now fear.

  3. Mal Booth Says:

    Hahahahaha! Loved that last statement of yours.