twitter at an inflection point

Jul 24, 2009 | Mobile & Web

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from The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien/NBC

If there were any remaining doubt, the iranian election and michael jackson’s death closed the book on whether twitter’s mainstream moment has arrived. Conan O’Brien has a recurring skit about Twitter, and even Letterman and Kevin Spacey has gotten into it. It won’t be long before Twitter is on the cover of Times Magazine as Person of The Year.

So, what’s next? The $64 Billion dollar question of course is what’s the revenue model. Everyone has speculated on this, including TechCrunch, who believes the interest on the business model is so high, that they are willing to go over the line and published what’s essentially stolen information. And since I have no proprietary information on their financials, I am not going to speculate on an area that I don’t know jack about.

But I’ve noticed how substantially Twitter has changed in the last few months, in ways that are somewhat discomforting for the elitist in me, but good for the marketer within. The key development is that hashtag and twitter search have allowed twitter to evolve from what was essentially a follower-to-followee communication platform into a gigantic IRC server. Each hashtag is essentially an ad hoc IRC channel, covering its unique topic. And since twitter is always about the NOW, and never about the past, the top channels are always changing. Example is that tonight, as I write this post, “Ace Ventura” is trending high. It’s futile to ask why; by the time you figured it out, the party will be over.

For users, the only choices are to either jump in or to ignore it. And which you choose will tell a great deal about you: Are you a follower of crowds, always chasing the latest phenomenon? If you are like the majority of users, you’ll at least tweet: “why’s everyone talking about ace ventura?”, if not tweet something about how you like/dislike the Jim Carey. If you are more of a critic, like me, you’ll denigrate the legions about their unthinking lemmings instinct, whining about how the MySpace crowd has killed the private club. Just like in the 1990’s, when the proliferation of low-quality GeoCities pages didn’t kill the web, I don’t think that folks talking about “New Moon” (which just emerged as a top trend right this minute, I guess because of the moon rising in the sky??) will bother me. I just simply won’t go view those tweets. The social media model of followership combined with the power of search allows me to filter out most of the stuff I don’t care for.

But that’s not to say that twitter don’t have some growth problems. Just as spams killed USENET newsgroups, and arguably email, the proliferation of twitter spam can easily kill the medium and drive users away. Here is an example:

“comic-con twitter 101 guide ace ventura twitter launches #iranelection johnny depp jim carrey goodnight letterman mexico!!”

…which is nothing more than a tweet loaded with the top twitter search terms at the moment, presumably so people will find this user/loser, and see what other amazing original tweets he has to offer. The worse offenders will use this technique and throw in a link, in an effort to get traffic to their web page.

This, of course, was the same spamdexing or keyword stuffing technique that was used to get a web page ranked higher, back in the days when Google and search engines were fooled by it. But the search engines have gotten much better at recognizing these simple search engine hacks, and thus keyword stuffing is largely abandoned as an SEO technique these days.

How twitter handles the spam problem will be the leading indicator of whether Twitter will implode under its own popularity, or continue to thrive as a marketplace where the crowds with diverse intent can peacefully coexist. And how the fight will end is very unclear. On one hand, twitter can learn from the search engines’ experience battling search engine spam and leverage the same techniques. On the other hand, unlike web pages which are full HTML with unlimited length, structure, and metadata, 140 characters of ASCII doesn’t allow twitter to recommend best practices to help twitter sort out the wheat from the chaff, as Google does for web pages.

Either way, it’ll be an interesting battle to watch.

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