While Facebook and the iPad garnered considerable attention this year — and rightly so — it is the free micro-blogging service Twitter that gets my 2010 accolade for the most important technology product of the year.
Now with more than 175 million subscribers, an estimated dollar value that is double that of the New York Times, and 25 billion tweets this year alone, Twitter is becoming a formidable disrupter in multiple domains, including media and the enterprise.
In June of this year, responding to several of my friends and colleagues who were simply confounded by the merit of Twitter, I posted my first blog on the topic. Looking back now, six months later, I see that even I significantly underestimated the value of the service.
Twitter finally meets the two essential criteria for business success:
1. Is there a viable revenue model?
To that I say a resounding yes! This year, Twitter began the rollout of their suite of promotion features. A form of advertising, Twitter promotions call out sponsored hashtags and help to serve up associated tweets. As Evan Williams (Twitter co-founder) pointed out at the Web 2.0 Summit in November, a considerable challenge right now is managing the excessive demand by brands to have their products and services promoted. He also pointed out that there are many more ways to monetize Twitter that are in the works.
2. Does the service have sustainable utility for its users?
Once again, Twitter has proven this to be the case over and over again. I’ll spend the remainder of this post exploring this point.
Twitter as a communications tool
There are few websites or TV commercials now that don’t adorn themselves with the Facebook and Twitter logos. These services are quickly becoming the new destinations or originating points for people interested in learning more about products and services. Twitter, with its small footprint and timeliness advantage, has the ability to uniquely reach and drive sales to a global audience. For a broader set of marketers such as politicians, governments, entertainers, charities, media outlets, and non-governmental agencies, the service provides a new and valuable channel to spread a message.
I personally use Twitter to communicate my ideas and to highlight items of interest to my followers. I also enjoy reading tweets from those I follow that are both informative and entertaining (side note: like many of you, I’ve completely dropped the use of RSS for pushed content as a result of Twitter). It’s also a knowledge discovery tool for me (more on that later below).
The usage of Twitter during the Iranian presidential protests in 2009 hints at the promise of a frictionless channel that rides above the limits of traditional communication tools.
Twitter as a disrupter of existing media
If you’ve had the chance to play with Flipboard for the iPad, it’s clear to see that pulling in a Twitter stream illuminates the real-time zeitgeist in ways never possible before. It presents person-specific interests and provides options for content, such as video, that can be explored further if desired.
Too often we take an existing media and simply present the same content in a different digital context. Great innovation uses digitization for reinvention. For example, we shouldn’t simply bring TV to the Internet; it should be different and use the unique capabilities of digitization to make it even more compelling. In Twitter, for example, the ability to serve up news in small chunks from a plethora of pundits results in the reinvention of news distribution. That’s neat.
Twitter as a competitor to Facebook and Google
The September facelift of Twitter on the web, which included inline video and photographs, was suggestive of what may lie ahead. Rather than being limited to basic micro-blogging capability, the revised Twitter is a compelling place to share media and send and receive direct messages. Improved mobile accessibility and usability extend these capabilities beyond the desktop, too.
Twitter has become a destination to discover and find things. Some of that is by push (e.g. you follow a link someone shared), but increasingly it offers benefits in pull (e.g. you do a search for something). While the demise of Google search is not imminent, Twitter is a search paradigm disrupter that can’t be ignored.
Twitter is natively a social network. It easily connects people and interests. Once again, while not a Facebook killer yet, a few additional features would align it against the core value-propositions of Facebook, but in a decidedly — and potentially — more compelling manner.
One can easily deduce why both Google and Facebook have been vying to acquire Twitter.
Of course it’s not all perfect. Twitter has a lot of work to do. They continue to have service outage issues when utilization spikes. A symptom of success no doubt, but an excuse that is long past its free-pass status. In the same interview cited earlier, Evan Williams spoke about the need — which they are working on — to have more meaningful or relevant tweets somehow rise above other less valuable content. One survey found that 40 percent of tweets are “pointless babble.” That’s a lot of noise if you’re trying to get real value from the service.
Fundamentally Twitter is important because it takes traditional concepts such as marketing and messaging and forces us to rethink them. Its API enables powerful data analysis of trends and discovery of patterns. It has spawned an ecosystem of more than 300,000 integrated apps that extend its capabilities. It’s even sparked a healthy amount of copycats, both in the consumer space (e.g. Ident.ca and Plurk), and in the enterprise (e.g. Yammer and Socialcast).
I recognize Twitter as my 2010 technology product of the year for many of the reasons above, but specifically it is because of its potential. If the company makes a few smart decisions over the next few months and beyond, Twitter has the power to be profoundly important in many areas of our lives.