Traffic, Exploding Trucks, and Twitter as the New AM Radio

By Nathaniel Mott , written on August 6, 2012

From The News Desk

Nothing makes you question modern technology like knowing – or, as the case may be, not knowing – that an exploding truck brought traffic to a halt for a number of hours. For instance, as I recently learned of an exploding truck by way of Tweetbot's "Nearby Tweets" feature while sitting in traffic, I realized just how important it is that Twitter not shoot itself in the foot by restricting third-party apps, or by trying to build a media company.

It's safe to say that nobody particularly enjoys sitting in traffic, even besides the fact that we're enduring record-breaking temperatures across the world, the environmental waste of a stopped-but-not-parked car feels like a cruel joke. But perhaps the most frustrating aspect of traffic is coming to grips with the fact that, as traffic gets increasingly backed up, the percentage of people that know why they're sitting in traffic drops precipitously.

Many areas have tried to solve this problem by setting up a dedicated radio station specifically for traffic updates, but there's one problem: They suck. Typically banished to the AM radio spectrum, which carries a signal so weak it can be blocked by Saran Wrap, listeners rarely hear anything from them but static.

As I found myself in the traffic earlier this week, instead of AM radio, I turned to Twitter to try to find some answers of what's happening around me, and it seems I'm not alone in that. In his Creative Mornings talk, Craig Mod talked about how he and the people around him used Twitter during the catastrophic earthquake that shook Japan in 2011, a much worse ordeal than a traffic jam but one that illustrates all the more the need for users to access updates of the world around them.

“We couldn’t make calls or contact friends. Data networks were also extremely taxed,” Mod says. “Twitter actually was the only thing we could get information from, because it’s such a small amount of data sent out in text packets.” But Mod also relayed in his talk the trouble he had finding relevant Tweets further down his feed, identifying this as a huge problem for the service.

The difficulty searching through Twitter's feed shows in much less dire situations, as well. Former PandoDaily writer Greg Kumparak once called Twitter out on the company’s sixth birthday:

A few times a week, I find myself needing to reference an old Tweet. Maybe it’s to win an argument. Maybe it’s for a post. Maybe it’s because I just want to show someone the absurd crap they Tweet when they’re drunk.

Alas, finding anything on Twitter older than a month or two is an exercise in extreme patience. Want to find it on their profile page itself? Scroll to the bottom, wait for it to load 20 more Tweets. Scroll to the bottom, wait for it to load another 20. Scroll. Wait. Scroll. Wait... Want to search for something? HAH. Good luck. Even if you know the author and exact words used in Tweets, Twitter’s search always seems to come back empty handed. Sure, the company has been working on its search results, but for the wrong reasons. Twitter is making it easier to find other users and view hashtags, not dig through the past and find pertinent information. Twitter’s iPhone app doesn’t even have any sort of “nearby Tweets” functionality (or, if it does, it’s so carefully hidden that I couldn’t find it). The company has neglected this aspect of the service, keeping this data out of users’ hands despite its utility. Is it any wonder that other services and apps work to build a better solution?

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told Nick Bilton of The New York Times, “Our vision for the company is simple: Twitter brings you closer. You can say something now and broadcast and everyone around the world sees it immediately.” Twitter has nailed this aspect of the service, representing the metaphorical megaphone in today’s social landscape.

Unfortunately, the company has also failed time and time again to make that information readily available beyond the immediate moment. Perhaps Twitter exists as the next AM radio frequency. But it doesn’t matter how loudly you shout into the microphone, if all anyone hears is static.