It is obvious to anyone in the business of media, advertising, and promotion that Twitter and other social networking applications have been become critically important in the generation and dissemination of information. But what else could we do with this? I have a couple ideas.
1. Elections. I was at the Young Democrats of America national convention this August in Chicago where one side of the ticket led by current YDA President Crystal Strait had the election bought and paid for. Part of why money was so influential in this election is that you didn’t have to literally buy the entire delegation from particular states; you only had to buy the state leadership because it is the state chair who tallies and reports delegate votes. State Young Democrat leadership also rents the hotel rooms and arranges travel with the implicit message that if you are not here to vote for the person they want you to support, you’re going to have to find your own way home. It is hard to maintain the integrity of a ballot when you can control all parts of that process.
How can Twitter change this? Simple. It would be a trivial exercise to have Twitter create an elections application based on their platform. You could register the phone numbers for individual delegates at registration or alternatively assign each delegate a secure ID that they use to tweet votes. No one votes who isn’t registered and cleared by the organization, since you’re able to control access to the voting mechanism, and as a (presumptively) independent and unbiased third-party organization, Twitter can maintain ballot integrity since it’s a trivial exercise for them to ensure the secrecy of the ballot. This guts the ability of state or national officials to control their voting blocs. And since everyone has cell phones anyway, the platform’s infrastructure is already in place. You get all the benefits of electronic voting and none of the disadvantages. There are a few other objections but I’ll address them without loss of generality later on.
2. GPS navigation devices. A friend and I were driving through St. Louis today and her GPS navigation system led us to a highway that was closed for construction (and had been closed for the better part of the past year) and I was reminded of a conversation I had a couple years ago with Dr. Ron Harstad, who presciently asked how we could use cell phone technology to route traffic more efficiently.
The operative principle is that the interface determines behavior. Imagine if there was a realtime integration of GPS navigation with Twitter. Instead of unique avatar names, you could identify posts with a unique identifier for the time and exact geographical navigation and scroll the most recent and most important posts along the sidebar. Crowdsourcing realtime information about traffic routes is both eminently feasible and pretty cheap, since the only additional work you’d have to do is add on a Twitter interface specific to the GPS system. Combatting things like spam or bad information is something that we’ve learned is really feasible through crowdsourcing and the only real work is to design the interface appropriately. You can take a look at Google Earth, where crowdsourcing has added incredible richness and value to an application that would be otherwise prohibitively expensive to engineer, or Facebook or Digg, where posts are subjected to realtime evaluation as users are able to evaluate which signals are valuable and which are not. Imagine the potential for coordinating and managing large emergency situations particularly.
Now to address objections. Generally speaking, objections to these proposals are all parametric questions that we can easily engineer around. Questions of security: how can we preserve a ballot’s integrity or prevent people from misusing realtime emergency navigation data can generally be addressed with the right set of protocols (you have a 3rd party control the voting platform or time-delay realtime emergency tweets in appropriate situations). Questions of workability: can we depend on telephone communications and satellites? What if Twitter goes down? These problems are generally managed by ensuring redundancy in the system. Questions of access: not everyone has a cellphone (fortunately almost everyone does and they are really cheap).