SAN FRANCISCO -- Six years ago, Twitter became one of the most talked-about companies at SXSW when it put giant TV screens in the conference hall to flash tweets to attendees.
The stunt tripled Twitter's traffic… from 20,000 tweets to 60,000. At this year's festival, Twitter can expect to see more than 500 million tweets per day.
These tweets represent a 24/7 conversation about what's happening and what people think – from the global conversation that happens around the Olympics, to the local chatter about a fire in a neighborhood bar.
And because we're no longer just posting about what we had for dinner – we're asking "Did you feel that earthquake?", raving about a new character on Smash or cheering on the President during the State of the Union address – there is now a huge opportunity to analyze these conversations for insights into what's happening at any given time, and get an early jump on emerging trends.
For example, a spike in posts about runny noses in the Northeast could alert the CDC to a flu outbreak. A sharp drop in product sentiment on Twitter could let a company know about an incipient PR crisis. Companies that use surveys and focus groups to gauge opinion could also be analyzing social conversations to see what their target audience thinks, in real time.
Consumers can also benefit from analyzing social conversations. Today, free online tools allow anyone to search social conversations to see what people are saying; tomorrow, these tools will layer on insights to help you make sense of the results. Think the ref made a lousy call during the Super Bowl? Soon, you'll be able to see that 74% of America agrees with you.
Companies may even license a "fire hose" of these insights in the same way they now license Twitter's raw data, to create their own information portals for consumers. Fox, for instance, could use insights data to fuel a real-time sentiment tracker around American Idol contestants while a local news station could use it to feed a breaking news widget on their site.
Twitter has come a long way since its breakout at SXSW in 2007. It is now one of the primary ways we express ourselves, share our opinions and interact with each other online. As such, we're in a position to move beyond merely listening to these conversations and look to them for knowledge and understanding.
Within the dissonant cacophony of voices on Twitter are hidden thousands of individual songs. The trick is to bring order to the chaos, and like social alchemists, transmute millions of apparently meaningless Tweets into pearls of crowd-sourced wisdom.
Leyl Master Black runs the Social Technology practice at Sparkpr, one of the world's top independent PR agencies. She writes about social marketing and technology for Mashable. She does not represent any of the companies in this piece.