Profile: Twitter

Twitter took off from simple to ‘tweet’ success

By
Jefferson Graham
, USA TODAY
July 21, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — "What are you
doing?
"

That question is the rocket fuel
for Twitter — a hot social-network service that lets you tell people what you
are up to at any given moment of the day — via cellphone, instant messenger, or
the Web. Never heard of it, you say?

"What are you doing?" is the
question Twitter asks "Twitterers" to answer in a simple text message as they
connect with friends, co-workers or the wider world. Twitterers "tweet" about
everything from what they had for lunch to how much they enjoyed their latest
Netflix DVD. If that sounds silly and incredibly narrow at first, don’t worry,
you’re not alone.


Twitter co-founders Jack Dorsey, top, and Biz Stone pose on
the roof of their San Francisco offices. The signs they’re holding replicate
Twitter chatter.

"When people hear about Twitter,
their immediate reaction is that it’s the simplest and stupidest idea in the
world," says co-founder Biz Stone.

"They do not want to know that
their brother is eating a hot dog right now," he says. "But then they discover
that their friends are on it. And so are the L.A. Fire Department, NASA and
JetBlue. Then they get it."

Boy, do they.

Twitter has become so popular, so
fast, that keeping up with its fast-growing user base is a real issue. So many
people now use Twitter to update friends that the system often crashes.

That could be about to change.
Twitter executives are working feverishly to solve the problem through a new
investment ($15 million, according to several tech blogs) from Spark Capital and
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and putting off expansion plans (i.e., making money)
until the network issues are resolved.

"Twitter took off really quickly,
and honestly, we were surprised and had to play a lot of catch-up," says Stone.
"Now we’re focusing 100% on reliability."

Twitter no longer exists just for
friends to tell friends that they’re on their way to the gym or out to eat. It’s
become a kind of hypergrapevine news resource — a way of instant messaging your
circle of friends about your interests ("Did you hear what Obama said today?")
or consumer rants and raves ("The customer service at Zappos.com rocks!").

The service is even credited with
breaking news about fires and other natural disasters.

Twitterers, as they call
themselves, post their updates at Twitter.com or by using text- or
instant-message tools.

A cottage industry of websites —
including TweetScan, FriendFeed and Summize (which Twitter recently acquired and
renamed Twitter Search) — have popped up to service the Twitterers and their
tweets, by making it easier to search through the chatter for specific topics or
people.

**>Video <** 

Tweets of gold

Savvy businesses see gold in the
information: Consumers are talking about them on Twitter, and they get to
respond more quickly than ever.

"In the past, companies would hire
a market research firm to understand their audience," says Mike Hudack, CEO of
Blip.tv, a New York-based video website.

"Now we use Twitter to get the
fastest, most honest research any company ever heard — the good, bad and ugly —
and it doesn’t cost a cent," he says.

With Twitter, Hudack can monitor
every mention of Blip.tv and see exactly what people are saying. He can drop
notes about things the company is thinking of doing and get instant feedback
about whether they’re worth pursuing.

To get started on Twitter, you
begin by searching to see who else is using the service and ask permission to
"follow" their postings. Twitter subscriber Joe Rogel — known as Granola Joe on
Twitter — says the service is a great way to reach those who might otherwise be
inaccessible.

Blip and other young companies
such as shoe retailer Zappos.com are on Twitter. So are food retailer Whole
Foods and cable company Comcast, whose customer service issues — especially
online — are legendary.

Frank Eliason, a customer service
manager for Comcast, spends his day communicating with Twitterers about the
company — hoping to resolve issues. Comcast isn’t on Twitter to turn around the
firm’s customer service perception issues but simply to "build better
relationships with our customers," he says.

Whole Foods, which started using
Twitter in June, just wants to hear what people are saying about the company.

"It’s amazing how many people say,
‘I’m off to Whole Foods for lunch,’ " says Slayton Carter, Whole Foods’ online
community development coordinator.

Getting beyond the tech crowd

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh uses Twitter
to make himself available to the public. He says he receives up to 200 tweets
daily.

"For people who follow us on
Twitter, it gives them more depth into what we’re like, and my own personality,"
he says.

Zappos tested a new site,
zeta.zappos.com, recently on Twitter, "and we were able to make some
improvements based on the comments," says Hsieh.

When Twitter co-founders Stone,
Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams began working on their new Web idea, Dorsey
suggested a site that emulated the "status" feature of instant-messaging
services, which lets people know whether you’re online. Twitter also adopted the
short character limit of text messages and IMs.

As Twitter users know, if you
can’t say it in 140 characters or less, your idea won’t get out
there.

And since Twitter combines use of
the Web, IMs and text messaging, measuring the site’s popularity is tough. The
privately held company does not disclose numbers.

Traditional online measurement
firms report only Web usage, which is only half of the equation because so much
of Twitter usage is via mobile phones. Still, Web measurement firm Compete says
Twitter’s audience grew to 2 million users in May from 200,000 in May 2007.

Not everyone loves Twitter. Phil
Leigh, an analyst for Inside Digital Media, says he goes on the site with an
open mind and just doesn’t get it.

"That some guy saw Wall-E
and thought it was a great movie is wonderful, but it’s just not that
interesting to me. If somebody has something important to say, they can say it
in an e-mail."

Allen Weiner, an analyst at
Gartner, says that Twitter’s audience right now is limited to the "cognoscenti,"
but that it’s a testament to Twitter’s growing popularity that so many
third-party applications (such as Summize and FriendFeed) have sprung up to feed
on its success.

Many news and media outlets (from
cable giant CNN to tech blogs such as Techcrunch) have responded to the
popularity of Twitter by offering instant news updates to share with friends.
This adds to Twitter’s growing stature, says Weiner.

Twitter’s problem is keeping its
users happy. So many people go on it that at times — often, in fact — the system
crashes, and Twitter is unusable.

Stone and Dorsey say the problem
is that Twitter became more popular than they ever envisioned and that the
system they created wasn’t built for masses. An influx of engineers is working
to rebuild it, and they say the situation should be resolved within the year.

Bijan Sabet, a general partner at
Spark Capital, says the cash infusion should help solve the problem. But Weiner
doesn’t think it will go far enough. "I’d be stunned if by the end of the year,
somebody doesn’t buy Twitter," says Weiner. "They need the kind of global
infrastructure a big company could provide that would make it 100%
reliable."

A flock of chirps

Stone says the secret of Twitter’s
success is realizing that folks don’t want to use the Web for private
conversations but public ones. Nearly 90% of Twitter users make their updates
public, so everyone can read them.

"It encourages other people to see
what they’re saying," says Stone. "People aren’t doing one-to-one e-mail or
instant messages anymore. Just look at comments on MySpace and blogs. They’re
communicating with one another in an open way."

Just like birds.

In choosing a name for the
service, Stone suggested Twitter, and the co-founders jumped for it. "It’s what
birds do when they converge," says Stone. "The sound they make is technically
defined as a trivial chirp. How perfect … hear a trivial chirp on your phone,
look down and it’s your friend. During events, you can move as one with your
friends, just like birds, because you all know what everyone is up
to."

And if the bird analogy doesn’t
persuade you to use Twitter, we’ll leave the last word to Dorsey: "Is there
anyone you care about? Twitter is about keeping in touch and making the world
smaller."

So … what are you doing right now?

 

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