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Feb. 16, 2009, 8:37 a.m.

Twitter: Can chaos be a biz model?

Lev Grossman, explaining in Time why “Facebook is for Old Fogies,” writes: “We don’t understand Twitter. Literally. It makes no sense to us.”

It makes about $35 million worth of sense to Benchmark Capital and Institutional Venture Partners, who led the latest round of funding for the microblogging platform.  If co-founder Biz Stone can be taken at his word, Twitter wasn’t even looking for another infusion, but, well, opportunity knocked.  And in today’s climate I don’t imagine it took long to accept the cash.

Twitter does make sense to me.  Literally.  And I’m an old fogie.  Months ago I quoted a New York Times Magazine article, Clive Thompson’s “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy,” in which he described a stream of Twitter and Facebook updates as creating a new sense he called “ambient awareness”:

Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting…. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.” … an invisible dimension floating over everyday life…

That is well and good, and I get it, I use it, and I have Tweevangelized, but along with foginess comes diminished tolerance for chaos.  And it’s not hard to find younger Twitterers who agree that it’s chaotic.  In fact, for me Facebook’s apps and content structure work well to create that ambient awareness, but on Twitter, as your follower/following count rises, that pointillist painting starts to resemble a Jackson Pollock.  For users, that may be the main issue; for the company, the question becomes how to pull revenue out of chaos.

Tom Smith on SocialMediaToday stuck his neck out and listed “The 12 Major Problems with Twitter and the Stephen Fry Backlash,” the gist of which is that most of what you think you’re doing on Twitter is illusion and a waste of time.  Smith say’s you’re just deceiving yourself if you think you have an audience, have something interesting to say, or are connected.  He’s also frustrated with functionality, including the tools built around Twitter that are “a pile of poo that regularly breaks.”  Moreover, says Smith, Stephen Fry doesn’t give good tweet. From the considerable amount of frivolous tweeting by some, Smith generalizes that all of it is worthless, illusory, flawed, boring, and trivial: “Nobody is listening, even fewer people care.”

Enough.  Twitter is working for a lot of people, so let’s look at the other side of the coin, or Twelve Good Things about Twitter, and Never Mind Stephen Fry:

1.  Personal Branding.  It’s working for Stephen Fry, and it can work for you.  In this era of the Long Tail, 100 followers means 100 potential customers, and more importantly, 100 people who might spread the word for you.

2.  Image building.  Tweets by and about you can help define you.  Here at Nieman, we like to mine the stats, and Twitter is one of our top referring domains.  It probably helps that journalists are particularly into Twitter, but clearly, Twitter drives traffic and spreads the brand.  That includes self-promotion by bloggers as well as re-tweets and recommendations by others.

3.  Starting conversations.  It’s not great for continued conversations (for which the telephone was invented) but it starts them.  People have contacted me for extended discussion based on nothing more than a tweet.

4.  Transparency. Twitter is 100 percent open and searchable, which makes it a research tool.  Whatever you’re writing about, surely someone has tweeted about (although granted, old tweets never die but they can be pretty hard to find).

5.  Immediacy.  We’ve had a couple of plane crashes, Mumbai, the inauguration and other breaking news live-tweeted.  What’s terrific about this is not the scoop, it’s the ambient awareness, a sense of the event you get from an accumulation of tweets, but not from the composed dispatches of mainstream reporters.

6.  Networking.  I’m not sure this is a huge strength of Twitter compared to other ways of connecting; Twitter is micro-networking, or networking lite, but it’s certainly a way to reinforce networking connections you’ve made at a conference or in other ways, as well as to initiate new connections that may blossom later through other means.

7.  Trivia.  Not what Stephen Fry had for breakfast (fascinating as that may be) but serendipity — interesting tidbits and links from hither and yon that you might not have run into any other way.  Through search, you find what you were looking for; through RSS readers, you find material on topics you predefined.  But on Twitter you get pointers to stuff you like, but weren’t specifically looking for.

8.  Honesty.  In 140 characters, you can’t put much spin on things; it’s either “I like this,” or “this is crap.”  There’s not much room to vacillate.

9.  Group talk.  The hashtag is a make-do innovation for which Twitter should find a better tool, but any interest group from a small meeting or conference to the audience for a national event can add a new dimension in the form of group commentary.

10.  Research.  It doesn’t always work, but it doesn’t hurt to put a query on Twitter and see who tweets back with input.  This is true not only for journalists — it can work for lawyers, academics and others as well.

11.  Water cooler talk. Look, not everything in life is serious.  Sometimes, I might actually care what you had for breakfast.  Those of us who work in some solitude at home, or on the road, can preserve our sanity with the occasional distraction of some idle chatter around the proverbial, and now virtual, water cooler.

12.  Chaos. When I started thinking about this post, towards the end of a chaotic week, the general chaos of Twitter had me in a mood to question its viability.  But in a way, chaos is an asset to Twitter — chaos allows it to be many things to many people, to be what you make of it.  To Tom Smith, it’s all so random that he’s convinced nobody is listening.  But if you tweet enough, you realize somebody is listening.  And it may be that the general chaos is actually what inspires more and more third parties to build tools that can help you organize Twitter.

All these Good Things continue to lead the Twitterati to one Big Question: how will it be monetized.  Charges to users are unlikely to be accepted.  The leading candidates seem to be:  (1) every nth Tweet is a paid ad, just as a TV commercial break every 10 minutes or so; (2) fees for using the API (but this just passes the monetization issue along to the outfit building the app, which may not have a plan, or the means to pay, either; (3) upgraded services for proprietary use, like an inhouse Twitter network within a corporation.

The trouble with all of these is that they sound like after-the-fact ideas; a smart startup should know from day one where the revenue is going to come from.  In December I went on a limb with some predictions for 2009, including one suggesting that Twitter will ultimately seek to be acquired.  It’s entirely possible that Benchmark and IVP feel the same way, because monetizing chaos is a tall order, while chaos tamed within a more orderly system like Facebook might create new value.

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley, under Creative Commons Attribution License.

POSTED     Feb. 16, 2009, 8:37 a.m.
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