Star Priority Notation: a *new* NanoFormat for Twitter

The Star Priority Notation is a proposed nanoformat for users of Twitter or any microblggging service. A user can set a bang priority in their post/tweet such that it can be interpreted in a standard way by human readers or machine parsers. Readers who have a large number of tweets to catch up on (by virtue of following many people, or letting a long time lapse between checking updates) would now have a system to help them prioritize what they read.

[Note: the first version of this called it “Bang” Priority, using the bang symbol (! exclamation point). This didn’t catch on, and also collided with the use of ! for marking groups in Star * also is easier to read.]

The Structure

Explaining the name:

Notation can be used interchangeably with the more technical “Nanoformat”. It is “nano” as opposed to “micro”, which has been used to describe XML-based notation (e.g., the Microformats wiki contains a page on Nanoformats). David Pogue, technology reviewer for the New York Times referred to the more colloquial “notation” in his assessment of the service last week. (“Syntax” has generally been used to used to refer to system commands in Twitter).

Star is the asterisk symbol. It’s nice and unobtrusive.

Priority is a rough approximation for the newsworthiness of an act of communication: rarity, utility, and timeliness of it. Twitter competitor, for example, uses three bangs (“!!!”) to indicate urgency. If 3 can be used, why not any number up to 9? (e.g., using !9 as a shortcut). I had read once that the old Telex wire service terminals would ring a number of times to represent the priority of the news; there were radio deejays who had never heard ten rings until Noveber 22, 1963. Somehow this was lost in the age of the “news crawl” and RSS — all news from the most trivial to the most grave was placed on equal footing.

A single measure of priority would be difficult to establish universally. I figured that priority is likely relative to the activity taking place. I though this over a few days, and came up with four general areas, covering 7 broad activities of Twitter communications:

  • self-contained expressions (Thoughts & Questions)
  • references to hyperlinked resources (Publishing & Linking)
  • references to current happenings (Now & Alerts)
  • references to a person or people in physical location (Going & Events)

It is possible that more activities could be conceived (“S” for System Status, but *A could just as well be reused).”Commercial” is omitted from the list. It more applies to the source than to the activity.

The code is quite simple The first character is *; the second is the first letter of the activity above. The third character is a digit, 0-9. 0 may be reserved for activities which the author feels best to limit distribution; 9 is maximum urgency.

Though the numbers suggest the use of thresholds (e.g., “Only show me *G3 and above”), client software may be built to allow for any manner of customization, as long as the user interface can manage it. Alternately, you might want to direct your client software to throttle some number per day from chatty tweeters.

Activities & Priorities

CHANGES from March 1st. I’ve had this proposal up a little over a week, and have yet to get substantive feedback from peers (beyond “rather interesting” and “waaaaaaaay too complex”), so I’ve thought about a couple of the difficulties I’ve had.

First, I expanded the range to encompass all of 0-9. That way, you don’t have to refer to this list to know what the max urgency is. It is 9 for every activity category, and it should be 9 for any new activity category. Again, of course, Twitter clients like TweetDeck could implement a user interface to do the encoding.

I also separated out Events from Going. It was easier to create separate scales here. Going is for personal travels.

Lastly, this is meant to be case insensitive– though, take note of which case is more effective for certain letters. Q is more readable than q, which looks too much like g. L should always be used in place of lower-case l. I am open to people using H or h for hyperlink (emphasizing the “hyping” aspect of sharing links.)

Going (Geo)

Geographic location sharing was the inspiration for the Dodgeball service, which debuted in 2000; it was bought by Google and reconstituted as Latitude recently. This is ranked based on utility, how useful it is to the recipient:

  • *G0 – Normal commute or errand
  • *G1 – Arrived home (from local travel)
  • *G2 – Arrived at expected place/event
  • *G3 – Arrived at place/event was not planning to go to
  • *G4 – Planning to go to event
  • *G7 – Arrived home (from long-distance travel)
  • *G8 – Arrived in new city (away from home)
  • *G9 – I’ll be late*


These are public event announcements, non-specific to a particular person.

  • *E1 – New product announcement
  • *E3 – Media release (movie, record, book)
  • *E5 – Meeting / meetup (gathering taking a few hours or shorter)
  • *E7 – Conference (larger gathering taking half a day or longer)
  • *E9 – Limited availability tickets announcement (concert, etc.)

Thought (Tweet)

Many Tweets are simple thoughts, observations, and fragments of conversations. They can be ranked according to utility:

  • *T0 – Talking to oneself (or, if a response, directly to the recipient)
  • *T1 – Of interest to peers
  • *T2 – Of interest to anyone
  • *T4 – Of timely/contextual interest
  • *T6 – Of artistic, poetic, or comedic value
  • *T8 – Personal announcement (change in address/job/health, birth/engagement/etc.)

Question (or Favor requests or Ideas)

Twitter has been extremely helpful in in soliciting feedback. Of course, it depends on how many followers you have, and how many are listening at the present time. Identifying questions will help draw attention to them. Favor requests and ideas are similar in that they expect feedback (“Can you help me”, “What do you think?”). These should be ranked according to timeliness:

  • *Q1 – General question or idea, with no deadline
  • *Q2 – Need an answer with some arbitrary deadline
  • *Q5 – Need an answer today
  • *Q7 – Need an answer now

(I have used a similar categorization for my company’s internal forums; I could think of no other way of articulating an urgency.)

Publishing (an original story)

It is common for bloggers and news outlets to release their stories via Twitter. Using microblogging is much more flexible than RSS, since you can hand-craft your own feeds, and point to older resources. The rating objective here is to reward rarity. Generally, the more time that the author worked on preparing it, the more rare it is.

  • *P0 – Rumor / unsourced fact
  • *P1 – Opinion (everybody has one…)
  • *P2 – Humor
  • *P3 – Random thoughts / collection of hyperlinks
  • *P4 – Press release / Announcement
  • *P5 – Advice / howto / “service journalism”
  • *P6 – News article / Interview
  • *P7 – Analysis / Feature / Proposal
  • *P8 – Research report / documentary
  • *P9 – Interactive graphics, web databases, mashups

I’ve conspicuously left out blog posts here. There is no singular concept of “blog post”; they are any of the above.

Rumor, humor, and opinion are the most commonly produced, and more likely to be forwarded as well. Reducing their priority number can help counteract that tendency.

I have suggested that the pinncacle of the art is something with no name, nor a familiar community of practioners. Some people I can think of who may be known for this are Adrien Holovaty, mashup pioneer; Nate Silver, election statgeek; and Alberto Cairo, infographics researcher.

Reposting (your own story)

This is for posting a link to an already posted/published link. Use P, and the above scale.

Linking (somebody else’s story)

Certainly, the history of blogging has been about linking to other people’s content. Hyperlinks now consist of 20% of Tweets.

This can re-use the scale for publishing above, starting with L or H (for Hyperlink).


Live communications is a popular subset of media. These are ranked by rarity:

  • *N0 – What you’re doing now
  • *N2 – First-person account of a “staged” event (conference, speech)
  • *N4 – First person account of a dynamic event (sporting event, press conference)
  • *N6 – First person live exclusive
  • *N8 – Breaking News


This is similar to live reporting, though it focuses on utility — how important it is for you to know.

  • *A1 – All clear
  • *A2 – General inconvenience (traffic, noise)
  • *A4 – General public endangement (natural catastrophe)
  • *A6 – Personal character endangerment (harassment or defamation)
  • *A8 – Personal physical dangermenet

Obviously, this is not to suggest a replacement for official emergency services (911 in the U.S.) It does, however, suggest that a pure text protocol can be used if necessary. The event of character endagerment is much more common on the Internet, which led me to devise the Protocol for Online Abuse Reporting in 2007. It seems to me this should be covered by a texting alert protocol as well.


I picked a tweet from the last 5 hours from 20 people I follow. I’m not promising an exact science here, but I feel this captures a diversity of the types of things people post to Twitter. Tagging consistently– and building tools to render the tagged data appropriately — can help us effectively filter the priority items.

  1. Dries Blog post: Mollom software partner program *P4
  2. jeffmcneill Lo tek fixes to Hi tek problems (NYtimes)… *L5
  3. BostonUpdate Sports: All Pedroia, all the time? – *P4
  4. hootsuite And we’re back* What a swift owl* Our servers are humming along again. Things should be running smoothly now. *A1
  5. Roxyyo Apparently the Obamas can save the economy simply by broadcasting everything they buy. It will all sell out like Canadian maple cookies. *T1
  6. mbauwens Added to the wiki: Knol: Discussion ?Older revision Revision as of 05:49, 20 Febr.. *P5
  7. TweetStats The *Real* Top 20 Twitter Applications. Based off >50million tweets. *P8
  8. ariherzog It should be noted, for whatever it’s worth, that my pledge to not blog about twitter this month is continuing as promised. *T1
  9. amazonk Deadgirl versus Shawn of the Dead. How to keep your high school desires satisfied with zombies. *T1
  10. Digidave New Blog Post Fun Friday Links *P3
  11. AriMelber TWITTER REC: ProPublic launches @changetracker to help follow stimulus spending and online transparency. *L9
  12. jdp23 good night all* sorry #p2 had a rough night tonight … growing pains. i’ll summarize the first week in a blog post tomorrowish *T1
  13. Pistachio “Follow as many as you can, click like crazy until Twitter put the handcuffs on you, then… un-follow anyone who isn’t following you.” *T4
  14. eszter excellent dinner conversation with Howard Gardner, Brigid Barron and Alex Quinn at MacArthur Grantees’ meeting *T1
  15. jowyang RT @frostola Social Media is an opportunity, but we’re being careful to measure worth and impact. Otherwise you risk being branded trivial. *T3
  16. BrianReich I am an idiot. I went from too tired to write to two hours of TV. It’s midnight. I am still up. I have a lot to do tomorrow. Idiot. *T0
  17. BenBaril Google Desktop vs Copernic vs Windows Live Search? *Q1
  18. skemsley Debunking Tapscott: You’re never too old to get the Net: *L5
  19. robertniles Disaster averted in CA today. But until we kill Prop 13 rules, gov’t meltdown in CA will be inevitable. Time for majority rule. *T3
  20. billtrippe Podictionary, a podcast for word lovers,… *L6

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