The Week that Twitter Tipped

Twitter has been a-tweet since 2006, but the first three months of 2009 have delivered the micro-blogging service unprecedented traffic, usership and media cachet. In the parlance of mad-haired Gladwell disciples, Twitter is reaching its tipping point. And it's happening as I write.

This week alone, Twitter has been casually derided by Google's [GOOG] CEO, labeled a potential "search engine alternative" by Search Engine News, and compelled TechCrunch to call 2009 "the year of the activity stream."

Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune ran an article on Twitter's increasing popularity among lawmakers in Congress. (Louisiana Governor Jindal is "weird," tweeted Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer during the President's televised speech last week). Over the last couple of months, New York Magazine has been discussing Jimmy Fallon's resourceful Twitter-based fan-base campaign promoting his new late-night show, that premiered this week.

More pragmatic users are now using Twitter's immediacy as a kind of speed-addled email-list. Last year, savvy folks used it to track the progress of wildfires in California. But as of this week, it's being given an institutional role by everyone from school superintendents (who want to disseminate school closings) to airport administrators (who want to alert flyers of delays.) 

Much of Twitter's recent cred can be probably attributed to its role as a new-age electioneering tool by Barack Obama. Once Obama won and the news media began analysis of his success, mom and pop caught wind of this newfangled microblogging thing. Then they started to notice that all sorts of celebrities had jumped on the bandwagon. You can read the musings of MC Hammer or the aphorisms of John Hodgman; the training notes of Lance Armstrong; the play-feuds of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. 

Corporations are also mining Twitter for scaled-up applications. Mars Inc., the candy company, announced this week that its Skittles.com page would be replaced with a freestanding Twitter feed that filters for the word "Skittles." The attention has caught the innovative eyes of ad folks, too. Web advertising company Adjix has announced that it's creating a new ad format that will allow individual Twitter users to embed ads in their tweets and monetize their popularity on the service. Despite having taken in $55 million in venture capital money, Twitter doesn't have much revenue to speak of (although its Japanese-language service, which is second to English in worldwide popular use, is ad-supported), so the prospect of striking a vein of cashflow could bring even more prospectors running. 

Marking Twitter's official mainstream arrival, cable news belatedly injected Twitter into its stream of pablum last week, prompting its natural predator, The Daily Show, to dissect the trend.

But if none of that anecdotal evidence is enough, check out Twitter's traffic stats, courtesy of Compete. September to January saw stable growth, and once February rolled around, the explosion began. 

Twitter Traffic

Twitter can credit much of its success to its smaller playing field; as the Internet has grown more vast, regular old blogging seems like an increasingly lonely occupation. But with Twitter, there is real feedback: You know how many folks are following your announcements, and because all tweeting happens on one unified platform, it's much easier to talk back to those who you're following. Its 140-character limit also precludes users from the long-winded navel-gazing that makes most personal blogs insufferable.

Will Twitter replace blogging as the digital journal of choice for millions of Americans? Will it force blogging into relative obsolesence? If Twitter keeps up its numbers, it's certainly possible.

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