In the Twitter client Tweetdeck, and on my Twitter page itself, I run a search for “i18n”: the frequently used abbreviated form of “internationalization” (or “internationalisation” in BrE). A while ago, I noticed that this search feed contained some odd posts that seemed to have nothing to do with the topic, but originated from accounts belonging to the company American Airlines or from other Twitter users retweeting such posts. Here is a sample screenshot from Tweetdeck:
While all the other tweets have to do with multi-lingual software in some sense, the highlighted one doesn’t. It comes from the user PointsAdvisor and re-posts an American Airlines special offer posted by the corporate account AAirwaves.
I noticed such posts about two weeks ago, both in Tweetdeck and on the Twitter web page, but was stumped until I clicked by chance (or rather, by mistake) on the shortened link inside one of these posts. The AAirwaves account uses the URL (better: URI) shortener Bit.ly, and Tweetdeck will show the original long URI for me to click on (it’s a configurable option, which helps prevent accessing malicious pages). Here is the Tweetdeck link preview for the link in the highlighted tweet above, using data from Bit.ly:
And highlighted, there’s the solution of the riddle: American Airlines uses in the URIs of www.aa.com a path segment (some text enclosed by / characters after the host name) that reads “i18n” — and the Twitter search picks up on this component.
Now on the one hand, this is quite bad URI design on the part of American Airlines, but what’s more interesting is that Twitter’s search engine resolves shortened links and includes the target URIs into the search. I didn’t expect this, as the shortened URIs are posted to Twitter as-is. It could be that the search inclusion is a by-product of resolving and storing the full links for security reasons: to protect against malicious code obscured by a link shortener.
In any event, the effect may be ephemeral. For the last two days, there haven’t been any new AA tweets in my “i18n” search feed on Tweetdeck (which uses the Twitter API). And on the Twitter page, they seem to have disappeared even from the history. I imagine that the Twitter people have to maintain a number of manually created rules to keep search feeds free of accidental spill-over.
This still does not even begin to address the problem of genuinely ambiguous search terms. Wikipedia lists over 20 senses for “FAI” for example, from Fairbanks International Airport to the French term for “ISP” via the Football Association of Ireland, but a Twitter search for the term is overrun by the extremely common Italian verb phrase “fai”. One thing we can expect is for Twitter and similar services to come up with prioritisation and disambiguation options, which, I’d expect, will introduce problems of their own.