Whither Twitter?

My first reaction to Twitter when I first came across it about a year and a half ago, was, like a lot of other people, a bemused shrug. 140 characters? Is that it? I couldn’t really see the point. In communication terms it seemed to be a retrograde step. But because a few people I know swore by it, I signed up about six months ago and though it still took a little while, I’m now hooked. And I’m not the only one. In the last year, Twitter’s seen the exponential kind of user growth enjoyed by previous internet success stories like mySpace, YouTube and Facebook, with unique users often doubling in the space of a month (there’s a good analysis of usage numbers and patterns at Compete.)

There are, I believe, a number of reasons for this growth:

Twitter offers a clear, simple proposition

This kind of simplicity is a feature of many successful web sites and services.

Twitter lets you control who you listen and talk to

With out getting too media studies about it, in McLuhanite terms, Twitter is, I guess, a sort of ‘lukewarm’ medium. Now, I know that doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but the key is that like any ‘cool’ media it allows you to interact, but it isn’t truly cool like a seminar or chat because interaction is limited or, if you want it, non-existent. Twitter allows you to control the degree of interaction by controlling who you follow and who follows you. Unlike Facebook, someone you barely remember can’t pop up and throw a sheep at you. They can follow you, but that’s it. And if you’re not happy about them listening in to you, you can block them. They can never get back to you. It’s sort of like being invisible at big party and being able to wander round and dip into the conversations you’re most interested in and then move on, or, to stretch an analogy some way past breaking point, become visible for a bit and join in.

A simple, open API encourages developers and drives growth

The simplicity of Twitter’s API has encouraged users to develop a host of complementary services and while some of them, like Summize and Twitterfeed, are doing things that, in truth, Twitter should be doing themselves, most are enhancing and expanding the service, inventing new applications, connecting users and driving growth. And, unlike the Facebook API, these services sit outside your Twitter URL and don’t, for example, spam your contact list.

Examples include (in no particularly order).

1. Parcel Tracking

2. Trend Monitoring – see who’s talking about you or your business and compare that with your friends or competitors

3. Stop smoking

4. Twistori – “first person” visualization of Twitter messages, inspired by We Feel Fine

5. Anonymous tweeting

6. Tweetlater – which allows you to run Twitter cron jobs should you want to

There’s a million more at the Twitter Fan Wiki:

Of course, as regular users know, not everything is rosy in the Twitter garden. The service has experienced some considerable technical growing pains. Though it seems they’ve just raised $20 in round B funding which should go some way to solving these problems before it makes a serious impact on user numbers.

So, whither Twitter? Making predictions is a risky business, but I reckon they’ll sort out their scaling issues and continue to grow at a similar or perhaps even increased rate. At the end of this year or the beginning of next, the service will find a more mainstream audience, becoming the “Facebook” of 2009. And it won’t just be individuals adopting the service: organisations, from charities to supermarkets, will follow the example of Woot and Amnesty UK and start to promote offers and communicate with their members using Twitter feeds. This opt-in marketing might provide some of the biggest growth for Twitter – providing it with a more clear and apparent application for the sceptics. The downside of increased commercialisation will be inevitable spammy behaviour and legal issues about ‘cybersquatting’ of the Twitter name space. However, for responsible companies, who set up their feed and don’t pester people to join, this opt-in marketing could well be a serious channel in the future. I may also help introduce the notion of feeds, RSS and push content to a wider audience.

People have been predicting an imminent sale since Twitter launched in 2006. That hasn’t happened, and my guess is that it may not as, like the teams behind Facebook and Google before them, the Twitter team seem to be in a strong enough position not to have to. And though the downtime may have weakened their hand, the recent injection of venture money should cushion them from the need to sell. Of course, the new investment may also bring with it increased investor pressure to sell if a really big offer comes in from one of a host of potential heavyweight suitors from both the web and mobile worlds – remember you can Twitter via SMS. Either way, I expect that Twitter will continue to be the big story of the next year.
Finally, if you’re so inclined, you can follow me here.

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