Like everyone else on the internet, I’ve been seeing tons of articles fly by about Twitter, the social-presence/microblogging app designed by folks from the Obvious Corporation (former founders of Blogger.com). As an attendee of SXSW, I had the chance to experience Twitter in optimal circumstances, and I was impressed – Twitter is a prime example of a situationally relevant piece of social software.
For the uninitiated, the simplest way to think of Twitter is like a stateful IRC backchannel. In this analogy, your twitter homepage is your chat room, and your friends are the chat participants. Every time you log in you can see the messages that have been sent to your chat room, so you can instantly keep up with the people you’re following. Of course Twitter also has a strong mobile component, in which your friends posts can be delivered to your mobile phone, allowing constant updates by your friends.
So what makes Twitter cool? The one thing that blows me away is the power of its simplicity. Web 2.0 has been characterized by a race to the bottom in terms of interactivity, with the mantra of competition being “add more features.” My version of Myspace is better than your version of Myspace because my version of Myspace has chat! – that sort of stuff. Twitter, on the other hand has decided to deliver extreme simplicity – the notion that a small amount of text can be a useful social object. And you know what – it works. We can create social experiences around simple bits of text just like we can create social experiences around high-interactivity hot media like video clips.
Twitter is also cool because it leverages pre-existing practices. Twitter feels like a chat room – and the action in the service is very much like setting away messages in an instant messenger app. In a sense, a twitter stream is mostly comprised of away-message type messages – little bits of social information about individuals we care about. By leveraging these pre-existing practices, and simply bringing them into a new medium, Twitter has created a product that feels native – you know how to use it pretty much immediately. This is the hallmark of great IA and great product design.
In a way, Twitter represents some of the best values of Web 2.0 – it is a product that addresses a social need in a simple, useful way. It doesn’t overreach, it doesn’t try to do more than it should. They’ve likely cut more features than they added, which is a design philosophy I really believe in. Its refreshing to see applications like these still viably coming to market – because in the past few months I haven’t seen anything on Mashable or Techcrunch that had had a vague chance of being incorporated into my set of tools.
Ok, so that’s the upside for Twitter – now, what are the challenges the product faces? Perhaps the greatest challenge Twitter faces is making inroads into the youth market. Why? Well, young people have been utilizing and hacking apps to create social presence for many years now. The main vector for social presence is the buddy list. With more young people having their own computers, the buddy list becomes the default location for presence. While I couldn’t find a good stat in the literature, my guess would be that the average young person has an average of one- or two-hundred friends on their buddy list. At the same time, instant messenger has successfully jumped to mobile, so the notion of using the buddy list as a presence notifier is nothing new.
Therefore, to bring these younger users over to Twitter will be somewhat challenging – barring some unforeseen Myspace-like growth in popularity, Twitter’s network won’t be as valuable (in the Metcalfe sense) as an instant messenger network, simple due to the fact there’s more information available in the instant messenger network.
Of coruse, one can argue that Twitter isn’t just about setting away messages – it is also about Microblogging. As it happens, young people have been Microblogging in social network services for some time now – the wall or message board is the perfect example of a microblog. Again, Twitter leverages pre-existing behaviors, but the ultimate question revolves around where the individual’s microblogging is most valuable. For a young person, it may be more valuable to share a link or write a wall post (knowing the wall post will get sent to Feed) in Facebook.
The purpose of this post isn’t to come down hard on Twitter, but to point out that the behaviors and practices it is leveraging aren’t exactly new. And for bloggers who don’t have a robust buddy list, and don’t write wall messages, Twitter may seem revolutionary. However, in the youth market, they already have a place for these practices, and the process of pulling these users to a new place may be rather difficult.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Twitter being the current sweetheart of the blogosphere. 54k meme be damned, its always a good thing to have A-list bloggers loving your product – and they love it for the right reasons. It is actually providing them a useful service, and they love it as a result. However, as I look at my Twitter friend list, a vast majority of users are people I see 2-4 times a year at conferences. Great people, but they’re only situationally relevant during those times.
I think this illustrates the problem for Twitter – for it to catch on in a mainstream fashion, it must be filled with people you care about/interact with on a day-to-day basis. You must be able to log into Twitter and find out what your friends are doing. And considering that we have countless other ways to do this, Twitter faces somewhat long odds. In the end, the value of Twitter is so closely tied to the value of its network due to its simplicity (in my Network Effect Multiplier equation, Twitter lets a small initial value). Getting to this point will be a challenge for Twitter, but they’re off to a strong start, and it will be interesting to watch them grow.