Twitter: Think It's Silly? Then You Don't Get It

Charlie O’Donnell: If there was ever a poster app for Web 2.0 tools you need to use to understand, it’s Twitter.  On the surface, it’s easy to look at it and say, “It’s a bunch of people incessantly blabbering  on about meaningless crap.”  Fred Wilson made a great point at lunch today that you could just as well say that about instant messengers, and IM clients represent some of the most valuable and sticky applications users have on their desktops.

Past the incessant micro-updates, though, which I, of course, take part in, there’s more potential here.   If anything, Twitter’s biggest challenge may be in defining what it wants to be when it grows up and who it wants to serve. 

Right now, very much like at the time of its funding, Twitter has a lot of passionate users, people are building mashups and lightweight apps on it, and it has the potential to become many different things.  These outcomes don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it will be interesting to see how Twitter brands itself over time, builds features, and what segments of the population it actively goes after.   In fact, who the service targets will likely influence what it becomes, and vice versa, so in some sense, defining its audience is largely an exercise in self-definition.

There are a few groups, applications, instantiations, versions, etc. of Twitter that I think could gain traction:

  1. LiveJournal & other Social Networks:  I picked out LiveJournal because it’s a perfect fit.  Each  blog is read by only a small handful of readers–friends of the LJer.  Providing a tool by which the users could continue to communicate off the site could help increase loyalty and social interaction to a site that already excels in those areas, but would probably like to extend its reach. Plus, LJ already has a popular “status” feature.  It would be only natural to want to allow LJers to publish this status or blog updates across the web, IMs, and mobile.  Facebook should be powering its status through Twitter as well.  One thing that both of these sites do quite well is promote communication, and I think the keys to their future are implementing features that help maintain the communicative aspects of social networking.  Sites like MySpace aren’t going to survive if it’s just about friend adding and profile browsing.  Key Feature: Privacy.  Social networks need robust privacy features and so do the apps that build on them. Most LJ blogs are closed and making sure they’ve simplified and completely nailed the privacy features would be key to adoption.  Key Business Point: Will SNS realise that enabling more user communication is key to user engagement and loyalty or will they look for immediate paths to monetization?
  2. Conference Attendees:  SXSW really nailed it for me.  With various possible tracks and a constantly ebbing and flowing swirl of closely proximated people, Twitter proved to be the perfect conference app.  People freely gave out their Twitter screenames knowing that they could always leave or block those people later on, lowering the bar for mobile communication.  If you’re running a big conference, you should be using Twitter to be the digital hallway, and as we all know, hallways are often the best parts of conferences.  Key Feature: Stats, Directories, and Co-Registration.  Conference producers would definitely look for ways to get more of their audience on this, and to provide them with enough information to message each other.  Streamlining the registration process so that you can sign up for Twitter or publicize your account when registering for the conference would be key.  This way, they could publish your screename in attendee directories and make it easier for key networking contacts to find you.   In addition, they would probably die for a management view of this app where they could see who the “talkers” were, who they were talking to, connections over time, conference feedback, etc.   Key Business Point:  What does the management tool look like and could you sell it?
  3. Corporate Twitter: We have an intra-office e-mail address that blasts messages to everyone that routinely gets abused by reply-alls that I wish I could unsubscribe to.  On top of that, there’s often the need to message people through phones in short form when you don’t know exactly where you are.  Putting a smart phone seems like overkill for this and not everyone necessarily wants to give their cell number out to the whole office.  Twitter could be a great cross-platform IRC channel for small to midsize offices, and even part of an office’s emergency management plans, with its capacity to blast messages out to a large group of mobile users.  Key Feature: Privacy and monitoring.  Corporate IM applications have needed to not only provide extra levels of security and privacy, but also monitoring of what gets discussed. Twitter would likely have to do the same, lest anyone Twitter corporate secrets.   Key Business Point:  How corporate would it be?  Perhaps just a lightweight app more geared towards small businesses would be a better start, rather than building a heavy locked down version behind the firewall.
  4. Content subscription portal:  There have been lots of fake celebs popping up on Twitter…   Steven Wright, Christopher Walken, John Edwards… (oh, wait.. Edwards is real, right?).  Adding a celeb or a business to get a stream of content from them makes so much more sense than just being their friend via a profile.  It’s only a matter of time before bands, movies, comedians, etc. make Twitter a standard part of their communication with fans.  Plus, I wouldn’t mind a Weather Channel Twitter update on Brooklyn weather conditions, score changes for the Mets, and Hudson River water temps.  Key Feature: Spam prevention.  Twitter will have to build in some limitations on how often 3rd party content providers can blast out updates, what types of messages are allowed, etc., just in case marketers get overzealous.   Key Business Point: There was a land grab on Twitter names when they opened up their API and they may need to boot some squatters, but this is likely to come to pass and I’m sure it will be a revenue opportunity for them.  The question is what is a Twitter subscriber worth?

Gaming:  I’m surprised that people haven’t built large scale games out of Twitter.  (Sounds like a Jane project…) Twitter could blur the line between participants and lurkers, since your public twits related to the game could enable others to follow along and perhaps jump in with answers, route advice for location based games, etc.  Imagine adding a game “friend” one day and just knowing that, sometime over the next week, you’re going to get instructions for a game.  Key Feature: Spam prevention.  Twitter will have to build in some limitations on how often 3rd party content providers can blast out updates, what types of messages are allowed, etc., just in case marketers get overzealous.   Key Business Point: There’s big advergaming potential here, and the great thing about Twitter is that it acts like a portal.  You don’t have to remember some special shortcode for a mobile game… everything is based on 40404. Gaming and mobile contests can be built in a very social way with Twitter and enable lower barriers to entry and discovery.Charlie O’Donnell, the organiser of Next NY Digital, writes This Is Going To Be Big.

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