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6.5 Twitter and the Rise of Microblogging

Learning Objectives

After studying this section you should be able to do the following:

  1. Appreciate the rapid rise of Twitter—its scale, scope, and broad appeal.
  2. Understand how Twitter is being used by individuals, organizations, and political movements.
  3. Contrast Twitter and microblogging with Facebook, conventional blogs, and other Web 2.0 efforts.
  4. Consider the commercial viability of the effort, its competitive environment, and concerns regarding limited revenue.

Spawned in 2006 as a side project at the now-failed podcasting startup Odeo (an effort backed by Blogger.com founder Evan Williams), Twitter had a breakout year in 2009. The actor Ashton Kutcher beat out CNN as owner of the first account to net one million followers. Oprah’s first tweetA Twitter post, limited to 140 characters. is credited with boosting traffic by 43 percent. And by April 2009, Compete.com tracked the site as having thirty-two million visitors, more than the monthly totals for Digg (twenty-three million), the New York Times (seventeen and a half million), or LinkedIn (sixteen million). Reports surfaced of rebuffed buyout offers as high as five hundred million dollars.S. Ante, “Facebook’s Thiel Explains Failed Twitter Takeover,” BusinessWeek, March 1, 2009. Pretty impressive numbers for a firm which that month was reported to have only forty-nine employees.M. Kirkpatrick, “How Twitter’s Staff Uses Twitter (and Why It Could Cause Problems),” ReadWriteWeb, June 5, 2009, http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/twitters_staff_may_not_use_twitter_like_you_do_tha.php.

Twitter is a microbloggingA type of short-message blogging, often made via mobile device. Microblogs are designed to provide rapid notification to their readership (e.g., a news flash, an update on one’s activities), rather than detailed or in-depth comments. Twitter is the most popular microblogging service. service that allows users to post 140 character tweets via the Web, SMSA text messaging standard used by many mobile phones., or a variety of third-party applications. The microblog moniker is a bit of a misnomer. The service actually has more in common with Facebook’s status update field than traditional blogs. But unlike Facebook, where most users must approve “friends” before they can see status updates, Twitter’s default setting allows for asymmetrical following (although it is possible to set up private Twitter accounts and to block followers).

Sure there’s a lot of inane “tweeting” going on. Lots of meaningless updates that read, “at the coffee shop” or “in line at the airport.” But many find Twitter to be an effective tool for quickly blasting queries to friends, colleagues, or strangers with potentially valuable input. Says futurist Paul Saffo, “Instead of creating the group you want, you send it and the group self-assembles.”C. Miller, “Putting Twitter’s World to Use,” New York Times, April 13, 2009.

Consider the following commercial examples:

  • Starbucks uses Twitter in a variety of ways. It has tweeted corrections of bogus claims, such as the rumor the firm was dropping coffee shipments to U.S. troops to protest U.S. war efforts. The firm has also run Twitter-based contests, and promoted free samples of new products, such as its VIA instant coffee line. Starbucks has even recruited and hired off of Twitter.
  • Dell got an early warning sign on poor design on its Mini 9 Netbook PC. After a series of early tweets indicated that the apostrophe and return keys were positioned too closely together, the firm dispatched design change orders quickly enough to correct the problem when the Mini 10 was launched just three months later. By June ’09, Dell also claimed to have netted two million dollars in outlet store sales referred via the Twitter account @DellOutlet (more than six hundred thousand followers), and another one million dollars from customers who have bounced from the outlet to the new products site.J. Abel, “Dude—Dell’s Making Money Off Twitter!” Wired News, June 12, 2009.
  • The True Massage and Wellness Spa in San Francisco tweets when last-minute cancellations can tell customers of an opening. With Twitter, appointments remain booked solid.

Surgeons and residents at Henry Ford Hospital have even tweeted during brain surgery (the teaching hospital sees the service as an educational tool). Some tweets are from those so young they’ve got “negative age.” Twitter.com/kickbee is an experimental fetal monitor band that sends tweets when motion is detected: “I kicked Mommy at 08:52.” And savvy hackers are embedding “tweeting” sensors into all sorts of devices. Botanicalls (http://www.botanicalls.com), for example, offers a sort of electronic flowerpot stick that detects when plants need water and sends Twitter status updates to a mobile phone.

Twitter has provided early warning on earthquakes, terror attacks, and other major news events. And the site was seen as such a powerful force that the Iranian government blocked access to Twitter (and other social media sites) in an attempt to quell the June 2009 election protests. Users quickly assemble comments on a given topic using hash tagsA method for organizing tweets where keywords are preceeded by the # character. (keywords proceeded by the # or “hash” symbol), allowing others to quickly find related tweets (e.g., #iranelection, #mumbai, #swineflu, #sxsw).

Organizations are well advised to monitor Twitter activity related to the firm, as it can act as a sort of canary-in-a-coal mine uncovering emerging events. Users are increasingly using the service as a way to form flash protest crowds. Amazon.com, for example, was caught off guard over a spring 2009 holiday weekend when thousands used Twitter to rapidly protest the firm’s reclassification of gay and lesbian books (hash tag #amazonfail).

For all the excitement, many wonder if Twitter is overhyped. All the adoption success mentioned above came to a firm with exactly zero dollars in revenue—none! Many wonder how the site will make money, if revenues will ever justify initially high valuations, and if rivals could usurp Twitter’s efforts with similar features. Another issue—many loyal Twitter users rarely visit the site. Most active users post and read tweets using one of the dozens of free applications provided by third parties, such as Seesmic, TweetDeck, Tweetie, and Twirl. If users don’t visit Twitter.com, that lessens the impact of any ads running on the site (although Twitter was not running any ads on its site as of this writing). This creates what is known as the “free rider problemWhen others take advantage of a user or service without providing any sort of reciprocal benefit.,” where users benefit from a service while offering no value in exchange. And some reports suggest that many Twitter users are curious experimenters who drop the service shortly after signing up.D. Martin, “Update: Return of the Twitter Quitters,” Nielsen Wire, April 30, 2009.

Microblogging is here to stay and the impact of Twitter has been deep, broad, stunningly swift, and at times humbling in the power it provides. But whether or not Twitter will be a durable, profit-gushing powerhouse remains to be seen.

Key Takeaways

  • While many public and private microblogging services exist, Twitter remains by far the dominant service.
  • Unlike status updates found on services like Facebook and LinkedIn, Twitter’s default supports asymmetric communication, where someone can follow updates without first getting their approval. This function makes Twitter a good choice for anyone cultivating a following—authors, celebrities, organizations, and brand promoters.
  • Twitter hash tags (keywords proceeded by the # character) are used to organize “tweets” on a given topic. Users can search on hash tags, and many third-party applications allow for Tweets to be organized and displayed by tag.
  • Firms are leveraging Twitter in a variety of ways, including: promotion, customer response, gathering feedback, and time-sensitive communication.
  • Like other forms of social media, Twitter can serve as a hothouse that attracts opinion and forces organizational transparency and accountability.
  • Activists have leveraged the service worldwide, and it has also served as an early warning mechanism in disasters, terror, and other events.
  • Despite its rapid growth and impact, significant questions remain regarding the firm’s durability, revenue prospects, and enduring appeal to initial users.

Questions and Exercises

  1. If you don’t already have one, set up a Twitter account and “follow” several others. Follow a diverse group—corporations, executives, pundits, or other organizations. Do you trust these account holders are who they say they are? Why? Which examples do you think use the service most effectively? Which provide the weaker examples of effective Twitter use? Why? Have you encountered Twitter “spam” or unwanted followers? What can you do to limit such experiences? Be prepared to discuss your experiences with class.
  2. If you haven’t done so, install a popular Twitter application such as TweetDeck, Seesmic, or a Twitter client for your mobile device. Why did you select the product you chose? What advantages does your choice offer over simply using Twitter’s Web page? What challenges do these clients offer Twitter? Does the client you chose have a clear revenue model? Is it backed by a viable business?
  3. Which Twitter hash tags are most active at this time? What do you think of the activity in these areas? Is there legitimate, productive activity happening?
  4. Why would someone choose to use Twitter over Facebook’s status update, or other services? Which (if either) do you prefer and why?
  5. What do you think of Twitter’s revenue prospects? Is the firm a viable independent service or simply a feature to be incorporated into other social media activity? Advocate where you think the service will be in two years, five, ten. Would you invest in Twitter? Would you suggest that other firms do so? Why?
  6. Assume the role of a manager for your firm. Advocate how the organization should leverage Twitter and other forms of social media. Provide examples of effective use, and cautionary tales, to back up your recommendation.
  7. Some instructors have mandated Twitter for classroom use. Do you think this is productive? Would your professor advocate tweeting during lectures? What are the pros and cons of such use? Work with your instructor to discuss a set of common guidelines for in-class and course use of social media.