Even before it won its first SXSW award in March of 2007 Twitter has been making waves. Since then the messaging service has achieved a valuation, “pegged at way north of $70 million,” according to leading tech blogger Om Malik who also notes that its most recent round of funding raised the company another $15 million.

Originated as a browser-based microblogging tool allowing users to post updates of up to 140 characters to groups of followers (rather than just to individuals), Twitter has spawned a plethora of tools now piggybacking on its success; from desktop clients which free users from Twitter’s browser-based origin to those that allow searching of the stream of Twitter messages known as ‘tweets’.

Once the playground of ‘tech elite’ early adopters Twitter is now being utilized by businesses to monitor their status and brand among not only those early adopters, but among the rapidly growing number of more mainstream users now using the service.

Twitter is now on the way to rearing its head in full and in doing so has also become the center of one of Web 2.0’s greatest love-hate relationships.

Though its popularity is evident from mentions in the press and conversations in the blogosphere actual usage statistics for Twitter are a bit hard to come by. At the end of April TechCrunch reported: “Hitwise says web visits have increased 8x in the last year . . . Compete shows about 900,000 U.S. monthly website visitors. Comscore puts the worldwide number at 1.3 million unique monthly visitors in March.” Furthermore, as much of the action on Twitter occurs via mobile phones, instant messaging and desktop clients, statistics such as those above are not necessarily of much use. What is agreed upon, however, is that Twitter usage is increasing rapidly.

Commentary of late has revolved largely around issues such as Twitter’s downtime, which seems to be increasing in direct relationship to its popularity, and its business viability (it is still a free service without income). And many are still asking one of the original questions of Twitter: “What is the point?”

There is no avoiding the fact that Twitter’s increased traffic has taxed its ability to perform optimally, its downtime seems to have increased in direct relationship to its popularity. Twitter’s Ruby-on-Rails architecture has been criticized for its lack of scalability and the company’s lead architect, Blaine Cook, recently departed. Dennis Howlett of the blog AccMan comments on the scenario: “Right now I see way too many instances of instant forgiveness in the use of tools that are not delivering on the promise they first espoused and yet which seem to march on regardless. Digg is one example. Twitter, with its continuing failures is another.” Howlett is quite correct, Twitter may be failing to keep its end of the deal, but what may be an issue for other services still has not pushed Twitter to the tipping point.

As to Twitter’s viability as a business, the company is in the same boat as other Web 2.0 companies which launched free sites or services and which are now struggling to find that elusive working business model. Even if it can overcome its repeated crashes and deliver a more stable architecture will Twitter merely be swallowed by a larger company and lose its luster, lose out to another upstart (such as its competitor Pownce co-founded by Digg’s Kevin Rose), or be found to be just another fad of limited or no value. Though ultimately only time will tell Twitter’s fate, it is making some headway in demonstrating its value.

As noted earlier, Twitter is now being used by businesses to monitor comments, participate in conversations, and as a tool to communicate with customers in near real-time. In his piece for BusinessWeek entitled Why Twitter Matters, Stephen Baker points out that, “Businesses such as H&R Block and Zappos are now using Twitter to respond to customer queries. Market researchers look to it to scope out minute-by-minute trends.” As an example of Twitter’s value in this arena Baker refers to Dell, which using the data mining company Visible Technologies, “scouts out the tweets and dispatches its Twittering workers to jump into the conversations. At a conference last week, the company claimed to have boosted sales through these efforts by $500,000 in recent months.” Companies, such as IBM which has an enterprise tool based on Twitter, are exploring the use of Twitter behind corporate firewalls and media companies including the New York Times, Reuters, and National Public Radio are maintaining a Twitter presence.

However, Twitter needs to work hard not only at proving its stability and value, but at maintaining its spot and gaining ground among potential users: Right or wrong, some still just don’t get it. Some out-and-out disregard Twitter as noise and some hate to love it, stating its noise is addictive. (Though there are those that love it all the more for its noise and cite the volume of ‘noise’ as its benefit.)

Abbie Lundberg, editor in chief of CIO, now among the Twitter converts, notes, “When I first came across it last year, I thought it was a joke. An online spewing of inconsequential details by self-absorbed people with too much time on their hands.” Though the title of Baker’s aforementioned BusinessWeek article, Why Twitter Matters, suggests he is also a convert he does state that, “It’s easy to laugh at nonsense on Twitter, the microblogging rage. ‘My nose is leaking,” writes someone called Zapples,” he writes “so imma go to sleep now’” However, Baker adds, “But I’ve heard lots of similar drivel (and even produced some myself) on the phone—an important technology if there ever was one.” While some will doubtless say the step from Twitter to the phone is a stretch, it may not be so if one places email (of which similar comments were made early on) as a stepping stone. Of course it is also the type of analogy that Twitter likes to see. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone is quoted by Baker: “It can become a communication utility,” Stone says, “something people use every day.”
TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington says, “It’s a huge marketing tool, and information tool. But it is also a social habit that’s hard to kick.” Lundberg is forced to agree: “I have to admit, sometimes I’m a slave. Depending on who’s posting (or “tweeting”) on any given day, I can find it hard to stay away.”) Having the distraction of visiting blogs to keep up on the latest gave way to reading RSS feeds and users are now faced with maintaining or viewing a constant presence of messages of the Twitter stream.

As for dismissing Twitter for hosting too much noise uber blogger (and Twitterer) Robert Scoble makes an interesting case against that. “The news is in the noise. Which is why Twitter is crack for newsmakers. There’s no better place to find noise, er news, than on Twitter.”

“Love it or hate it, Twitter, a service that embodies our narcissism, is one that we can’t stop talking about,” says Malik.

If you are interested in learning more about getting going on Twitter, Northern Light’s Vice President of Client Applications, Sheri Larsen, has an excellent post on the topic.
Sheri Larsen’s Flying Cloud
Get More Out of Twitter: Top Posts, Links and Tools

You can also follow Northern Light’s Content Analyst and Analyst Views’ author, David Martel, on Twitter. Click here.


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