Friday, August 28, 2009

Twitter is to Email as Radio is to Telephone

A very interesting, but flawed article by a young and wise blogger, Cody Brown, has been getting a good deal of deserved attention lately. He argues that because Twitter lacks a clear focus and an explicit mission, that it will suffer the same fate recently experienced by the similarly unfocused MySpace – i.e. a steady loss of users to more targeted and better defined services. His recommended remedy would have Twitter place all its chips on a core market, like MySpace has now begun to do by centering its offering on music.

Although I believe there is some validity to this overall argument, it is greatly hindered by the assumption that Twitter is a comparable species to MySpace – i.e. that the same evolutionary rules apply to both companies. I believe that Twitter is a fundamentally different beast from either MySpace or Facebook.

While progressive at the time, MySpace and Facebook were designed based on essentially static principles: profiles, virtual bulletin boards (walls), clearly defined networks and connections, groups, and photographs. These principles have been present in static media for decades – in yearbooks, in newsletters, on real walls and bulletin boards, in albums, etc. MySpace and Facebook initially represented the digitization of a pretty old paradigm for socialization. This paradigm is very reliant on the quantity and quality of content and is thus much more vulnerable to fragmentation – whoever offers the most of the best content usually wins more users. Cody’s analysis fits in very nicely within this framework because it clearly depicts how Facebook was able to offer more of better content – primarily driven by both an initial focus on colleges and by the transparency of actual identity verification. Both Facebook and MySpace have changed over time, but their initial principles shaped the trajectory of their relative success.

Twitter is based on different principles and thus relies on a different set of rules, a different group of prerequisites for success. Twitter was initially designed based on essentially dynamic principles: on mobile technology known as SMS (texting). This mobile technology is driven by real-time interaction. It is directly affected by the users’ unique geographical location and the unique perspective that stems from the location. This means that the paradigm is primarily reliant on the quantity of content – and the diversity that inherently stems from large quantities. For Twitter to succeed, it doesn't need to ensure the quality of its content. It only needs to continue to grow the amount of raw information that flows through its system – to become the go-to platform for this form of 140-character communication.

In many ways, Twitter represents a similar evolutionary leap from email that the radio was from the telephone. The radio added a new sense of mobility to distant communication. It opened the door to a more dynamic, democratic, and broader network of communication – eventually allowing the rise of mobile telephony. It also allowed for a much simpler process of rudimentary one-to-many communication. Like radio technology, Twitter represents a platform on top of which different networks are built. Companies will not build around Twitter, they will build on top of it. Because Twitter is a fundamental channel for communication that has opened up its infrastructure to others, its success does not depend on the quality of content that flows through its veins. By encouraging all forms of interaction, Twitter grows the required quantity of information that is transmitted across the system.

What this means is that Twitter is not a social network, it is a tool that social networks use to communicate. It also means that Twitter doesn't need to focus its content on a core target market in order to survive. Just like radio communication is used by billions of different stakeholders, Twitter’s aim should be similar in its broadness. It should serve as the most basic infrastructure for a new form of communication, where the greater the diversity of users and usage-categories, the greater the success of the core platform.

Although promising, Twitter still has numerous important challenges to consider and overcome - many of which I will explore in the near future.
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