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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.

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:

  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.