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I *Still* Don't Get Twitter

Published: January 22, 2010

Author: David Rodnitzky

What’s the value of Twitter? As I see it, there are a few use cases:

1. It’s a real-time search engine. News spreads quickly as people retweet stories, and you can ask a question in Twitter and often get rapid-fire responses.

2. It’s a marketing vehicle. Businesses can tweet a promotion and see it virally re-tweeted across thousands or millions of tweeters.

3. It’s a way to keep up with friends. You get snippets of info from friends and colleagues that require little to no effort to read or to write.

All this is well and good uses. My concern is that they aren’t really sustainable use cases. For example, as a marketing vehicle, I think it will be hard to keep Twitter from becoming a giant spam honey pot. Right now people actually respond to some marketing tweets. A few years from now, after the novelty has worn off, the click-through rate (CTR) on Twitter marketing messages will plummet the same way we’ve seen CTR plummet on email and banner ads. And spammers will enter Twitter in droves and try to deluge all of us with spam tweets.

You can argue that email and banner ads are still big business, and I agree. But let’s make one thing clear about both email and banners – both of them monetize a useful technology – in the case of email marketing, it works because people use email, and banners are effective because people read Web content. So Twitter marketing will only work if there is a primary usage to Twitter beyond just marketing. If Twitter becomes inundated with marketers and spammers shouting at users, the utility of the tool is diminished. So for Twitter to build a long-term use case, the marketing has to be ancillary to a primary usage.

What about keeping up with friends? I find this argument to be weak. Compared to Facebook, the functionality of Twitter is limited. Facebook is a rich medium to share thoughts, photos, videos, and interests with friends – Twitter is 140 words and a cloud of dust. I think a lot of people use Twitter right now out of novelty, but ultimately (unless something changes), I think people will return to Facebook as their primary medium for communication with friends.

So that leaves us with ‘real time search’ or ‘information discovery.’ Word does travel fast on Twitter. There’s value there. But the value ultimately is at a “meta” level. By that, I mean that it really doesn’t matter if you or me or another friend of mine tweets about a specific story, what matters is that there is an overall surge of activity around a particular story, link, phrase, etc. You can think of Twitter as a human directory of news. When millions of people are tweeting and retweeting information, the aggregation of those individuals becomes a powerful way to deliver real-time news.

That’s interesting as a concept, but there are some problems. First off, if Twitter ultimately becomes a “wisdom of the crowds” news service, how is it really different that Digg or other similar services? Secondly, if and when ‘real time news discovery’ via Twitter becomes a meaningful channel of information, it is subject to manipulation. Just as Digg and other human-powered sites have ended up being manipulated by heavy users or outright optimizers. Digg’s solution to this problem – build an algorithm to impact the results. But once you build an algorithm, you start to lose the original purpose of your tool – the human-powered results.

So there you have it – its a bad excuse for Facebook, the marketing component will be abused by spammers, and the discovery component will become a victim of its own success. I still just don’t understand how Twitter will be a major player two years from now!

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