Real-time communications networking is the new social networking,
and Twitter is leading the way. Promoted as a tool to help people stay connected,
it’s tweaked for use on mobile devices.
The question that drives Twitter, “What are you doing?,” can be interpreted in any way you like. To CNN, Twitter is asking “What’s the latest news?” To Britney Spears, Twitter is asking “What are my PR people up to?” And on a Friday night, Twitter is asking many twenty-somethings “What bar are you in?”
The theme that keeps re-surfacing when using this tool is simplicity. The 140-character limit to your answers, or “tweets,” is an obvious example, but it is also apparent in Twitter’s biggest weapon: SMS.
After a short registration process, users can send and receive updates via text message using one of Twitter’s country-specific phone numbers, a free service that incurs standard charges related to the user’s SMS plan.
Of course, on a Friday night, you don’t want to be bombarded with news from Gaza and Britney’s new single. Twitter users can set preferences online or use a series of text commands from their phone to customize the updates landing in their inbox.
LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR
Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, says using SMS to access Twitter makes sense. “Twitter was designed to work well with what we consider to be the lowest common denominator for our real-time messaging system – SMS. We were inspired by the brevity and the creativity that seems to emerge from the constraint. That, together with our popular APIs, may help explain our popularity among mobile device users.”
This approach has certainly paid off. Figures released by Nielsen Mobile compared the number of quarterly transactions per SMS user for Facebook: 47.1; MySpace: 101.0; and Twitter: 117.7.
Twitter also caters to the more tech-savvy phone users with third-party applications designed to feed tweets and other information to handsets. Developers are free to use the application programming interface (API) to build programs that interact with Twitter, although Twitter’s own FAQ page acknowledges the presence of some problematic bugs in the interface libraries.
One of the popular add-ons is TwitPic, which goes against the text-based aesthetic of Twitter’s designers by facilitating photo sharing. Mobile phone photographers can upload photos directly to their Twitter timeline, accompanied by witty text if necessary.
Twitter does not charge for any of its services, but businesses are seeing value in Twitter’s ability to feed information to a growing audience. Media outlets have a particularly strong presence on the site, using RSS or Atom Web feeds – originally designed for use in news readers and feed aggregators – to post news to their Twitter accounts as it’s released.
As part of the BBC’s backstage developer program encouraging outside developers to make use of their public data, Mario Menti set up Twitterfeed to post BBC news feeds to Twitter. He soon realized that the same concept could be applied to blogs and other alerts. “The idea is that there is a lot of content out there available in RSS or Atom format, so Twitterfeed is just an easy way to post that content to Twitter, regardless of whether that’s a blog or a news outlet.”
Twitterfeed was recently used to launch @uktrains, an unoffical Twitter account that feeds disruption alerts from 25 U.K. train companies to mobile Twitter users. The account already has 243 followers who receive a shortened version of each alert and a link back to the original announcement.
According to Ross Rubin, an analyst at NPD Group, Twitter doesn’t have the broad appeal of Facebook, but excels in certain areas. “Facebook unites people that aren’t as tech-savvy, where Twitter is more of an industry-centric phenomenon. But Twitter appeals to some as a light-weight form of communication – the progression of SMS and instant messaging. The ability to embed links also makes it a powerful way to communicate large amounts of information.”
Surprisingly, this next-generation style of text messaging is appealing to an older crowd. The Nielsen Mobile report reveals that the percentage of Twitter’s SMS users aged 13 to 17 is virtually nonexistent at 2 percent, compared with 13 percent for Facebook and 22 percent for MySpace. Users over the age of 34 generate a massive 50 percent of Twitter’s SMS traffic, compared with 39 percent for Facebook and 20 percent for MySpace.
Stone thinks that any comparison between Twitter and other social networking sites should be taken with a grain of salt. “Twitter is more of a real time communications network than a social network. People find interesting sources of information and then follow them – it’s a different model than social networking.”
Twitter is bound to evolve as more and more feature phone users gain access to the Web site through platforms like Anthem, removing the need for SMS updates. Other changes will come in the form of revenue-generating services and more third-party applications. Stone and the other Twitter executives have a busy year ahead of them as they try to answer their own question: What are we doing?