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  • 03.16.09

The Trouble With Twitter

Like many people, I have jumped on to Twitter.  Just in case you have been living under a rock recently, Twitter is a communication service that broadcasts your messages (limited to 140 characters) for all the world to see.  When people subscribe to your message feed (“following” in Twitter speak), they can be sure to see your tweets in their personal view of the global message stream.

Like many people, I have jumped on to Twitter.  Just in case you
have been living under a rock recently, Twitter is a communication
service that broadcasts your messages (limited to 140 characters) for
all the world to see.  When people subscribe to your message feed
(“following” in Twitter speak), they can be sure to see your tweets in
their personal view of the global message stream.

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People chat about many things on Twitter.  A favorite topic seems to
be Twitter itself.  In the stream of tweets on innovation, several
comments have gone by recently suggesting that Twitter is a disruptive
technology that may displace Google.  This notion raises some
interesting questions.  Is Twitter a disruptive technology?  What are
the prospects for Twitter to emerge with a viable monetization
strategy?  Is Twitter long for this world, or will it vanish as quickly
into obscurity as it emerged on the scene as it is replaced by
fast-followers?

In examining these questions, let’s start by asking what customer
need Twitter actually serves.  Generically, Twitter provides a
interpersonal communications platform.  In this sense, it competes with
a wide variety of technologies and products.  These cover traditional
web sites, blogs, video sharing (Flicker, YouTube), e-mail, instant
messaging, hosted discussion lists, community/social networking sites
(Facebook, LinkedIn), SMS, and phone based communications.  It is a
wide field of application serving a broad range of specific needs for
the users of each.  What distinguishes Twitter?  Here’s my quick list:

  • Real-time model
  • Highly engagement
  • Voyeur friendly
  • Concise messaging
  • Medium independence

On the flip side, here are some things Twitter seems weak in:

  • Deep exchanges (I still am laughing about the person that expected
    me to explain a complete theory and methodology of sustainable
    strategic innovation practice and deployment 140 characters at a time.)
  • Direct rich content
  • Continuity of exchange
  • Easy navigability of information

In a very nice article,
Renee Hopkins Callahan suggests Twitter’s target customer is the person
needing an easy one-to-many means of communication.   I think this is
not an accurate characterization of the customer that Twitter needs to
identify for success.   Why?  A painful truth that Twitter will need to
come to terms with is that the one-to-many communication space already
has a few strong and established players (Facebook and the like), and
the real-time aspect of the Twitter model is not a significant barrier
for these established channels to overcome.  [In the interval between
my writing this article and posting it, Facebook has announced that it
will be adding real-time status capability in the near term.]  This
will bring into sharp focus the limitations of Twitter and force them
to find the factors and hence refined use model to which they are
uniquely suited.

Already, I have seen bands of Twitterati forming discussion group
off the tweetin’ path.  Why?  So that they can break free of the
limitation of 140 characters and poor discussion continuity.  Real-time
fast-followers have strengths in areas of rich content and media.  They
also have much further community reach than the fledgling Twitter. 
(These days, 6 million registrations is probably not critical mass.)

The bottom line is that when community/social networking sites start
rolling out real-time, and instant messaging services roll out one-many
syndication, Twitter will find itself in a very awkward position.  So,
where does Twitter turn?

They are unlikely to be able to withstand the entrance of a big
player into their current niche.  They have not carved out a
sufficiently distinguished value proposition.  This really just leaves
Twitter with two options:

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  1. Find a more defined value prop that can secure a real and significant revenue stream
  2. Hang the “For Sale” sign on the front door and auction the
    technology asset off to the highest bidding fast follower that wants to
    get a jump on adding a missing piece of capability to their offering

We’ve all heard of Twitter’s secret business plan, but time is
running out as companies like Yammer are already trying to establish a
lead in specific niche markets that are aligned with Twitter’s current
service.  Evan Williams’ recent talk at TED doesn’t give Twitterati
much to hang their hopes on either.  The window of opportunity is
closing very quickly, and Twitter needs to stop being so cavalier about
its future.

I suspect that option 2 is the most likely outcome for Twitter. 
There are many strong market forces converging that could push this
choice on Twitter. 

Granted this is not a deep analysis of Twitter’s outlook since I am
not privy to their business plan, and only time will reveal the final
outcome.  But at this time, I don’t see any evidence that Twitter
presents a significant threat to Google as some have suggested, and I
do seen many indicators pointing to Twitter being just another
interesting paragraph in the history of the internet.

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