John

Some Thoughts on Twitter

In Online on November 19, 2008 at 4:50 pm

twitter-evolution

I didn’t really get Twitter at first and I thought that it represented all the worst things about blogging (navel gazing, echo chamber)…. Eventually, I came around. My family, who are generally far away, have a much better sense of what is going on in my life (even though sometimes I forget to call).
—Randy Stewart (comment on http://www.commoncraft.com/Twitter)

That’s a typical quote from anyone who hadn’t previously used Twitter, the microblogging service that left many, including myself, confused as to where it fit in the whole Web environment. It was touted as a micro-blogging service–writing down a post in 140 characters or less–and though it’s an accurate summation of what Twitter does, it presented a public perception that was well short of its true potential, which we’re seeing some 2 years after it launched.

I know. I was in that category of people aware of Twitter’s existence early on, but could not, for the life of me, figure out its importance. Being a microblogging service, the first thought that came to my head was “Do I need another blog service?”, as I struggled to keep up to one blog. This was a time when Tumblr started to gain buzz, and all I could think of is how this is another flash in the pan web fad that will fade away.

Question the relevancy of Twitter these days, and you’ll get a stare that says: “You n00b. Twitter’s awesome.” Just a couple of days ago, TechCrunch talked about Twitter’s “Hockey Stick Moment, in terms of its growth just shooting up”, where since January, the site experienced a 16-fold growth in the U.S, and may have posted its billionth tweet sometime last week.

O’Reilly Media’s Sarah Milstein, who wrote the report “Twitter and the Micro-Messaging Revolution“, (from which the quote above was taken from) broke down their amazing growth further, explaining in this article that:

We found that Twitter’s user base grew more than 500 percent from October 2007 to October 2008. But we were even more interested to discover that the service has enjoyed an usual effect: as more and more people have joined, the percentage of active users has remained constant. Among active users (those who post at least once a month), approximately 20 percent post daily and about eight percent post more than 100 times a month (not including known bots and feeds).

Though web services usually see a drop in the rate of use as lots of tire-kickers come and go, Twitter’s steady usage suggests that a jump in visitors during October could correspond to a big increase in regular users.

That percentage is so important–it’s getting a growing number of engaged users even as the site grows, and as TechCrunch suggests, is going to go mainstream. What amazes me more is how influential it has become in spawning an entire Twitter environment (e.g., Thwirl and Twitterific), and Twitter-like services that have taken off from the micro-messaging service idea.

Now, in the same way how people used “blog” to describe their “blog-like” startups like Tumblr, so startups are using “Twitter” as a way to describe these new ideas. It’s become a yardstick, the turtle on whose back new ideas are hitched upon.

These days, you have Yammer.com, which is a Twitter-like service for businesses who want to use it as a messaging system for projects. There’s Seesmic, an idea touted as “Video Twitter” in a nutshell by founder Loic Le Meur; Blip.fm is “music twitter”, where users (“DJs”) post up tweet-like messages along with an uploaded song that can be streamed. Locally, there’s Pacmee, a Twitter-like startup that has garnered a big following since Twitter ditched its international SMS service.

Even Facebook has taken a page from the microblogging service in revamping their Facebook Status feed: now you can view and comment on friends’ statuses in a very similar way tweets come up on the public page. Joon pointed out that fact early on, and the feel is so similar that I’m noticing some dropping off their tweets in favour of updating their FB status more (which does make sense from a social point of view–if your target audience is just your friends, why go on Twitter, where only a fraction of them are signed up.)

The Evolution of Twitter

So with the rise of Twitter-like spin-offs, where does that leave this pioneering microblogging service? Will it be left in the dust as more people go out and adopt more “functional” services? Here’s where things become a little bit different, because what makes Twitter popular because of its minimal features. Unlike Social Networking services like MySpace and Facebook that are constantly adding in more functionalities and features to encourage more stickiness and engagement, Twitter thrives on keeping things simple.

There have been a few additions to Twitter since it first launched (though the revamp helped to re-organise the site), but it’s essentially remained the same: write in under 140 characters or less, follow people who you like, and engage in coversation.

In the same way that (the now-defunct) Muxtape was great because it kept your song-sharing strictly to 12 songs on a text-based page, so is Twitter great in keeping things simple and focusing on its core value of sharing quick and short content. Pictures? Nah. Videos? Nah. Songs? Nah. Funny animations? Nah. In a media-rich world, keeping things simple seems almost counter-intuitive.

This is where other services of the Twitter environment come in, without detriment to Twitter’s user base. As the Twitter spin-off industry grows organically, filling niches that needed to be filled, it all links back to Twitter in an indirect (e.g., branding Seesmic as “video Twitter”) or direct (like TwitPic) manner.

More importantly, Yammer, Seesmic, Pacmee, and Twitter all can grow in the same ecosystem because Twitter, at its core, doesn’t take much effort to do. Compare this to other services that require a lot of work–blogs, MySpace, Facebook accounts. Sustaining two blogs or a MySpace and Facebook account would be hard. But sustain Seesmic and Twitter, or Yammer and Twitter? Sure, why not.

Even in the case of FB vs. Twitter, FB’s Status Updates fulfills a different niche, where feeds are mostly about social updates (“I ate a cheese sandwich for breakfast”) strictly among friends, whereas Twitter has a much wider audience, and the content and conversation shared is markedly different.

In the Twitter-like environment, each app fills its own niche, and each niche doesn’t demand such heavy attention.  It’s a case of how a “less is more” philosophy triumphs in a time where users demand more media.

Of course, that’s not to say Twitter should stop improving, but find ways of integrating the ecosystem better (more lateral growth), working together without fear of losing their user base to “competitors” like Yammer, Seesmic or Facebook. As long as users see Twitter as the base from which all these other services are rooted in, the service can only grow more influentially, and hopefully find enough revenue so that they can re-establish their SMS alert system.

And by the way, for those thinking of how businesses can use Twitter in connecting to their customers, Sarah Milstein did a great introductory lesson of what Twitter is in this Webinar:

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  1. nice post! i read an interesting comment in a tech blog somewhere — alas now forgotten — that the problem with twitter and lots of web 2.0 apps is that they can be folded into a facebook app.

    they make sense to users, but that doesn’t mean they make sense as a standalone business. check out how facebook added comments on user status — that’s almost like twitter, and it has actually led to me spending more time on facebook again.

    also, i wonder how services like twitter will fare in the post-apocalyptic world of wall street rebooted. venture money’s gotta dry up sometime, and advertising’s just not going to cut it. plus, nobody’s got the cash to spare on a buyout, and the banks sure aren’t going to loan a buyer the cash. where now, web 2.0?

  2. Everyone concerned with Twitter is wondering about the monetization of it. The rumours that it turned down a 500 million deal with Facebook, combined with Pownce’s closure to go into Six Apart has certainly accelerated the case for Twitter to come up with a business plan. But I wouldn’t put too much weight on the non-acquisition by Facebook–it too is well known to have monetization issues of its own, so who knows what the actual worth of FB is these days.

    Where to now Web 2.0? Well, that bubble has been predicted long before. Watch out for Web 3.0 in 2010.

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