Horn Group’s Ben Billingsley and Joe Ciarallo go back and forth on the real value of Twitter.
Ben: Thanks for sharing the Columbia J-School podcast: Twitter for Journalists, or everything you ever wanted to know about Twitter, but were afraid to ask.
I have to say, many of the industry executives I speak with are still skeptical about Twitter and this conversation went a long way toward answering some of the big questions about its value.
While I remain wary of the hype, the value of Twitter is seemingly more compelling now that more people are using it. This podcast made some excellent points but I was hoping you could help persuade me on a few of my lingering doubts.
Is Twitter really changing the world? I, like everyone in the office, was taken aback two weeks ago by the Twitter photo of the US Airways plane floating in the Hudson River, but is breaking news on Twitter really news?
Couldn’t anyone using a camera phone do what @jkrums did by uploading the photo to any forum? At the end of the day, isn’t Twitter an online forum by another name?
Joe: That is definitely a valid point. However, I think one of the differences with Twitter is its simplicity and ease of use. It is JUST a status update, nothing else. If someone wants to get the word out to their circle of contacts, it’s simply much easier to do so via Twitter compared to other online forums. It has reached the point where there is a massive conversation happening there around the clock.
A fascinating example is from The New York Times’ David Carr on how things can move from Twitter to
mainstream news. In this case it’s a story from Brian Stelter: On Saturday, Mr. Stelter’s wonderful article in The New York Times on how people were working around the blackout on the Olympic ceremony began as a post on Twitter seeking consumer experiences, then jumped onto his blog, TV Decoder, caught the attention of editors who wanted it expanded for the newspaper and ended up on Page One, jammed with insight and with plenty of examples from real human experience.
For something to go from a Twitter query to front page of The New York Times is truly amazing.
Ben: I keep hearing 6 million users - but how many are active? I remember the hype around Second Life and all of the audience figures that were thrown around that turned out to be slightly exaggerated. I get the sense however that this is different.
Joe: A lot of numbers have been tossed around, and with the exponential growth of Twitter you really have to stay on top of things to be sure you’re presenting credible data.
A recent report from Compete.com cited Twitter US growth for 2008 at 752%, while Nielsen Online said Facebook grew 116%, putting it almost even with Mypsace, which was flat. From a monthly unique visitors standpoint Twitter is less than one tenth the size of a Myspace of Facebook.
I don’t think anyone would argue that these numbers can’t be debated, but I think this provides a high-level snapshot of the current landscape.
As far as active users (those who post at least once a month), that has remained level at about 20%, according to an O’Reilly research report from November 2008. So, if we take Compete.com’s numbers of 4.4M monthly unique visitors and multiply that by .2, we come out with 880,000 monthly active users.
Ben: Isn’t Twitter all about establishing a brand online and then expanding one’s personal reach? And for Weblebrities consumed with having a personal online brand I get it - but where is the substance? For example, all those people talking about the Palm launch last month. If you look at the Twitter content it seemed to be more about the person talking about Palm than what they are saying. So isn’t that just noise?
Joe: Obviously, Twitter is incredibly useful for media people of all types in terms of being able to crowd source. But I think it’s unfair to say Twitter is only relevant to those consumed with having a personal brand. Reporters are asking about sources on Twitter, conference organizers are looking for speakers and partners, analysts are asking questions about upcoming research.
In terms of the Palm thing, with any big launch like that, I think there will be a lot of noise.
Ben: Why use Twitter from a business perspective? OK, I follow Rob Hof from BusinessWeek and he Tweeted (still makes me blush) that Mike Arrington from TechCrunch was sick and Erick Schonfeld was covering, which helped with a pitch - but I can’t really be expected to stay on top of all of this information to help manage my business. In order to be effective, this is yet another info stream I need to digest and it becomes an issue of bandwidth. When do we say enough is enough or how do we start to aggregate this all into one spot so it doesn’t become overwhelming?
Joe: I think Twitter search [link: search.twitter.com] has helped enormously in allowing people to aggregate keywords they track into RSS feeds or of course to just search in real time. I personally track all of my clients as well as my personal and blog keywords every day, and make an effort to participate in addition to listening. Many people I know also use different desktop apps such as Tweetdeck, which is especially helpful for aggregation.
Ben: It seems to me that once you start following the right people, Twitter can be incredibly useful, converging some of the best aspects of the Web into a customized info stream. Is Twitter all about the people you are following?
Joe: People use Twitter for many different reasons, but I think you hit the nail on the head here in that it’s all about who you are following. To that point, many of the news sources that I read on a frequent basis (BusinessWeek, The New York Times, MediaPost, Mashable, PRWeek) as well as many individuals use Twitter in some ways as their news feed so I hear about stories and breaking news on Twitter before I do on the actual sites.
Ben: Do you think Twitter will fade away or be bundled into something else? Should Twitter have taken the 500 million from Facebook? Couldn’t Facebook just start pushing its mobile status update functionality and make the Twitter audience seem small in comparison? If social media is all about people, couldn’t Facebook marginalize Twitter?
Joe: Right now all we’ve seen is continued growth, however, I think that’s a question for Twitter investor Fred Wilson. Fred is certainly one of the most well-respected venture capitalists out there and he and his team at Union Square Ventures clearly saw value. He recently wrote on his blog: "Sure the technology allows all of this to be possible, but the technology behind Twitter is not what makes it special. It's the people who are on it and the way they use it that delivers all of the value."
Ben: Thanks Joe. I think this discussion was helpful for all of us as well as other Brass Tacks readers.