Mumbai: Twitter Inc. plans to use India as a base to develop some of the new technologies for media and analytics capabilities that it plans to create as a part of research at the Laboratory for Social Machines (LSM), the creation of which it announced with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab on 1 October.
“India is big for Twitter. We are going to develop new technologies for media and analytics capabilities that have relevance for social impact. It’s early days, and I am here in India to meet up potential partners. We are clearly interested in education, literacy, language and language learning," Deb Roy, an associate professor at MIT Media Lab who will lead the LSM and also serves as Twitter’s chief media scientist, said in a phone interview on Friday.
LSM is funded by a five-year, $10 million commitment from Twitter.
A main goal for LSM will be to create new platforms for both individuals and institutions to identify, discuss, and act on pressing societal problems. Though funded by Twitter, LSM will have complete operational and academic independence. In keeping with the academic mission of LSM, students and staff will work across many social media and mass media platforms, including, but not limited to, Twitter.
As part of the new programme, Twitter will also provide full access to its realtime, public stream of tweets, as well as the archive of every tweet dating back to the first.
LSM will experiment in areas of public communication and social organization where humans and machines collaborate on problems that can’t be solved manually or through automation alone, according to Roy.
He was born in Canada but his parents are from Kolkata. “I have not been here in eight years because I (was) caught up in work," said Roy, who plans to spend the next few days in the country to “better understand Twitter’s operations in India besides meeting up with potential partners, and deliver a speech at the World Economic Forum in New Delhi".
With more than 33 million users, India is home to 8% of Twitter’s global user base.
The purpose of using India as a base for experiments will be mainly to increase ad revenue, according to Sanchit Gogia, chief analyst and chief executive officer of Greyhound Research.
“We can well expect Twitter to actively engage large corporate groups with consumer offerings like Pepsi, Airtel and other majors and encourage them to further invest in Twitter-based campaigns. Higher and tighter engagement between brands and consumers on Twitter only means more need for organizations to understand consumer sentiment," he said.
In 2008, Roy became the founding chief executive of Bluefin Labs, a social TV analytics company, which was acquired by Twitter in 2013.
Roy’s role as chief media scientist at Twitter is to do “analysis of data and figure out how Twitter fits in the media landscape, especially the intersection of TV and Twitter". He believes that the cross-section of television and social is the new hybrid form of human communication.
Though Roy says he has much to learn in India, he surely knows a lot about the country’s broadcasters. Broadcasters and producers are using Twitter increasingly in various innovative ways, leading not only to greater audience engagement but also garnering realtime audience feedback, content crowd-sourcing and also generating additional revenue.
Roy said broadcasters have utilized the power of Twitter to drive engagement and viewership. “Twitter is broader than television but television is the driver. Such is the case in the US, UK, and certainly in India," said Roy.
For instance, on 7 August, the micro-blogging site announced that in a bid to tap the growing social TV conversation, Twitter
is working with media partner Star Sports and advertiser Vodafone India Pvt. Ltd to present Twitter Amplify in India for the Indian cricket team’s tour of England.
Twitter Amplify enables media companies and brands to capture the excitement on TV and distribute it to fans and audiences across Twitter, beyond their followers.
“We have got used to thinking that audiences are silent. But that is not so. The Internet in general, and Twitter in specific, allows people to interact and connect," said Roy who is fascinated with language, context and analysis.
So much so that in 2007, as part of the Human Speechome Project—an effort to closely observe and model the language acquisition of a child over the first three years of life—Roy wired up his own house with video cameras to capture every moment (with exceptions) of his own son’s life-over 8-10 hours a day for over three years.
“My son is now nine years old, and yes, he does watch those videos sometimes," said Roy.
Roy also makes robots, the first one of which he built when he was just six. “I don’t get much time now. So I make robots with my seven-year-old daughter at my house," said Roy.
According to Roy, there are many implications of a hybrid form of communication.
Twitter, for instance, is “transforming news in several ways", Roy said. He cited the example of the “eyewitness network—leveraging news gathering from literally millions who tweet. I call this the human sensor network".
Similarly, he said, there are experiments by governments that are “using Twitter to listen, communicate and create feedback loops to become more responsive to citizens".
But what about the thorny issue of privacy?
“That’s a tough question to answer in such a brief time. Given that we analyse data, I must say we take privacy with utmost seriousness at Twitter," Roy said.