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The Future of Twitter

This article is the Context piece from the Book Rapper issue: Twittergy. It provides a context for the book summary of Joel Comm’s book Twitter Power.

Too Obvious!

It doesn’t make sense! Who would have predicted that Twitter could take off in the way that it has? It’s too simple to make sense. Asking people ‘What are you doing?’ and limiting them to 140 characters hardly seems like a winning formula. Or, was it simply too obvious that most of us missed it?

The clue is that the twitterverse is not an island. Twitter wasn’t created in a vacuum. Nothing ever is.

The Origin of Twitter

Instead, if you follow the path you can see how it was built upon a phenomenon that was already in place. Have you ever sent an SMS? Of course, you have. I bet you do it all the time. Millions of SMS messages are sent around the world every hour. Twitter is SMS on the web and back again. You can tweet on the web. And, you can tweet on your phone and post it to the web.

It’s become a bridge between your offline mobile world and the online web world.

Network Effects

But, what about Instant Messaging? Wasn’t that already the web equivalent of SMS? Pretty much it was. It allows short, sharp messages sent to your personal contacts. You can even go back and forth and have a chat.

And, and this is a really big AND, Twitter has added one crucial element that was missing in both SMS and IM. Remember, our Book Rapper issue The Great Business Gestalt? In that issue we looked at Web 2.0 and the underlying driver: Network Effects. A network effect is where one user impacts another. A traffic jam is an undesirable network effect – too many users make the road less useful.

Twitter taps into a positive network effect. As more people tweet, more people are drawn into the conversation.

Twitter’s Success Secret

The secret to Twitter’s success in this regard lives in the transparency and openness of the network. On Twitter, you accumulate links to other people. You follow them and they follow you. You get to see all the tweets that your followers post and they get to see yours. Simple.

Where things start to really take off is that your followers can also search for, find and start interacting with any other follower. They can go through your list and follow everyone on it if they choose. More specifically, if I’m following you and I send a reply to one of your tweets, then everyone in my list sees my tweet and so does everyone in yours.

This clear visibility of tweets and followings allows the Twitter-virus to cross-pollinate people and conversations. Where your SMS or IM contact lists are closed to other people, on Twitter your list of followers is open for everyone to see. Add the bridge between mobile and web and you’ve got a new worldwide phenomenon.

Many To Many Communications

Clay Shirky pinpoints the big shift (1). SMS and IM are like the telephone, a one-to-one communication. Radio and TV are one-to-many communication. And, now for the first time in human history, social media is a many-to-many communication channel. Now, that is a huge step forward!

Again it all seems too simple. One tweet back and forth doesn’t seem like a worldwide event. And, it’s not. It’s when you combine critical mass that it turns into something else. This is important for your tweets too! Your following needs to be of sufficient size for you to get the effect.

What Happens When You Speed Things Up

In the earlier Book Rapper issue We Blog we discussed the effect of still pictures becoming moving pictures. To make the leap from mere photograph to movie, you need at least 24 frames per second. Any slower and it doesn’t work.

To get the conversational effect of Twitter you need, not speed, but size. You need enough people to allow instant interaction. For instance, if you only have ten followers and you put out a question, you’re relying on these 10 people to be available at that time and to know the answer. In contrast, if you have 1000 followers, you’re more likely to get a response.

The same occurs at the massive scale of having millions of people around the world twittering.

Twitter is News Now!

Twitter is a real-time event. It’s now! Thus Twitter will continue to be the launching pad for news as it happens. We’ve had the Chinese earthquakes (May 2008), the Mumbai Shootings (November 2008) and the Iran Election Crisis (June 2009). Three big stories all announced to the world and updated via Twitter.

The next great story might not happen in front of you or me, and it will happen to someone with access to Twitter. And, probably someone with a mobile phone and a camera.

Creating the News Now!

And, it may not just be observing, you might want to create some news. Anti-communist protestors in Moldova used Twitter to mobilize 10,000 people in an event that gained worldwide coverage. (April 2009). Thus there appears to be two points of critical mass.

For the individual twitterer the effect probably kicks in at around 100-1000 followers – depending upon your level of influence.

For Twitter as a whole, well… It’s already engaging more than 30 million people and growing at 15% each month. Critical mass has probably already kicked in.

The Secret to Future Success

So, if Twitter has already reached a critical mass of users, where to from here? Critical mass doesn’t mean enduring success. For one, there are no dollars for the owners and investors. At some point, they’ll want to monetize their effort. The other big question is the fickleness of the online community who are constantly jumping onto the next big thing.

However, in Twitter’s case a magic ingredient may be brewing in its midst: end-user innovation. Twitter began as a simple broadcast medium. It’s morphed into a conversational powerhouse not through clever innovation by the owners and creators, but by its end-users.

That’s so big it deserves to be repeated. Twitter is the powerhouse it is today because of end-user innovation.

The #hastag, the @reply, searching and the 10,000 plus third-party applications have taken Twitter to a new level. And they were all created and/or inspired by the end-users.

The Real Future of Twitter

And, that’s just the beginning… Twitter is currently just for humans. No, your cat can’t have an account. Well, at least not officially. But, maybe your home alarm system can and even your houseplants can.

Would you like a tweet when someone’s breaking into your house? (2) What about a reminder that your plants are getting thirsty? (3) This is the real future of Twitter.

Would you like a reminder from your fridge to get milk on the way home? Would you like to know if you have all the ingredients to cook your favourite recipe? These might sound as inane as most tweets. And, tweet by tweet, they’re going to revolutionize everything.

Objects Tweeting to Objects

When objects start talking to each other your life will be very different. When everything on the planet gets connected relationships will change.

And, here’s the biggest possibility of all. One of the keys to climate change is our energy use. We waste so much energy because we don’t have sufficient controls to manage it efficiently. Consider, all the street lights that are left on throughout the night in all the cities around the world. Yet, most of the time there’s no one there to see the light. What if the streetlights could twitter each other… “Get ready, someone’s coming.”

Twittering is a human thing. It’s a new conversational channel that’s uniting the world in real time. That’s a revolution in itself. Yet, that’s just the beginning. When all things electronic start talking to each other we truly will have a new world experience. So, the next wave of Twitter might just be ‘Home Tweet Home’.


1 Clay Shirky, TED Video, Ted.com
2 Kelvin’s Thunderstorm: Twitter Burglar Alarm
3 Houseplant Twitter Kit via Gizmodo


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