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net.wars: Will tweet for food

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 23 January 2009


So we were at a thing in London this week where practically everyone was a Twitter user. Not surprising, since Twitter use has gone up nearly 1000 percent in the UK in the last year. As you do, we rehearsed various dissatisfactions with the service and wishes for feature improvements. Among them:

Wendy M Grossman

... people wished they could actually pay for the service so they could get it to do more of the stuff they want. There's something very odd about a company that people are so devoted to that they actually spend recreational time in a pub debating its business model. People were in love with Google in its early days, too, yet I don't remember pub chats about it.

That 1000 percent still makes Twitter tiny in context: it lags way behind Facebook, YouTube, Bebo, MySpace, and even Yahoo! Answers, as weirdly chaotic as that list is. YouTube compared with Twitter? As that article points out, the ecology of third-party software built around Twitter and automated feeds from Twitter into other sites like Facebook mean that many people use the service without ever accessing its Web site or even necessarily knowing they're reading a Twitter feed.

The existence of the third-party ecology is both a good and a bad sign. Good that people find the blogging-for-the-mobile-phone-generation platform so useful that they are willing to put in the effort. Bad, in the sense that it makes clear how utterly unusable Twitter is on its own. I've had an account for nearly two years, but left it mostly dormant until someone recommended Tweetdeck.

The whole conversation started because I was trying to find a tactful way of asking one of those present whether she could divide her Twitter feed into two: one for the really interesting work type stuff she does, and the other for the…"crap?" she said helpfully.

"It would be great if you could filter the feed by putting on "stop" words," someone said. Yes, and "go" words, too, so you could select what kind of thing you wanted to get when. You don't need many Twits on your list for the tweet stream to become unmanageable. Others have had this same thought and there is in fact something that does it.

Filtering would be a great thing because it's the lack of it that is the reason I've never dared turn on the switch that has Twitter send updates to my mobile phone. In the UK now, however, that element of the service is turned off. All to do with money, which mobile network operators tend to insist on and Internet users don't like to spend, leaving service providers squeezed in the middle.

"I'd pay for that," said one of the group. "The service is that useful to me."

"So would I," said someone else.

"Can't we ask them?"

"Lots of people have tried."

Twitter's business model has in fact been the subject of some speculation even outside of pubs, and even ideas how to turn it into a billion-dollar company. It has, apparently, enough money to go on with from its funding rounds.

No one's actually sure exactly what Twitter's business model is, but it seems clear that charging for SMS updates isn't it. The site has no advertising (not even on its blog or home pages), and even if it did that ecology of desktop clients would render it moot anyway. It also seems that making life easy for third-party developers isn't necessarily it either. Twitter so far seems to be following in the footsteps of the early Web: if they come in sufficient numbers and you keep control a business model will present itself.

It worked for Google, the last successful company that fed a lot of similar speculation in its early days (just, not in pubs, of course).

Another parallel: those stories were written about Google in 2001-2002, just after the dot-com bust, when it was fashionable among Old Media to opine that New Media would never be able to grow up, move out, and make a living. Now, in this much worse economic crash, how will Twitter ever be able to leave home?

Some things clearly won't work. No matter how small, there is probably no number of ads that wouldn't send users fleeing to a Twitter competitor without them. Google locked in its users by being better than its competitors, by offering added services, and by acculturation: the more you learn about constructing good searches on Google the less you want to repeat the learning curve elsewhere.

Social networks have proved in the long term to be more fungible: look at what happened to the well established discussion groups on early online services once everyone had access to the Internet.

More likely is the idea of marketing accounts, which is already happening anyway, built on the interests users indicate via their choices of whom to follow.

Our idea, which seemed logical in the pub: Twitter users start sending money to one of the company's email addresses using Paypal and force them to accept payment. Take control. Force a business model on them. Yeah!

It would be a great hack.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).