It may surprise you tech-savvy reader but most people still don’t use Twitter. Though we’re one of the most populous Twitter nations (4th in the Twitter league as of 2012), only one in five of the UK population uses Twitter from the stats I can find: i.e. users are in the minority. And of those, around 40% are passive — readers — rather than active — writers.
All this explains why yesterday around the network’s seventh anniversary I found myself on BBC Radio Scotland explaining the basics of Twitter. And why it seems like a good time to analyse the success of Twitter.
That success might in large part be attributed to the old adage that the simplest ideas are the best. Twitter took one of the key ingredients of the early social networks — the status update — and turned it into a hyper-concise broadcast medium. In tune with our time-pressured lifestyles it took what was most valuable to us about social networks — what other people were thinking, doing, eating, seeing — and condensed the ability to share and read this information down to a compact form.
Though there have been numerous evolutionary changes in the way Twitter operates this simple core has remained, and grown in popularity. Today around 200 million people use Twitter regularly. And from these 200 million users, Twitter expects to generate a billion dollars in advertising revenue this year.
The way people use Twitter has evolved too. One thing I have noticed recently is a willingness to conduct business via open @ messages that would previously have been restricted to private direct messages or SMS. For example, organising where and when to meet.
This says a lot about our attitudes to privacy in this social century, but it also comes in part I think from a willingness to jump fairly indiscriminately between multiple short messaging services. Conversations flip between Facebook, text, Whatsapp, Skype, Twitter, and more, albeit not seamlessly.
It’s the friction in swapping between these services that makes me wonder again if there isn’t an argument for a standardised, internet-based short messaging protocol. This would clearly damage Twitter and all the others unless they could find a way to differentiate. But in the long term it makes little sense that we preserve all of these little digital fiefdoms if they are fundamentally doing the same thing: carrying short text messages and linked media from one to one, or one to many. If this function is really a core part of the internet then surely its operation should be on distributed, internet principles?
It were to happen, one of the barriers to this shift would be identity: without a single authority who warrants identity (and polices abuse) on a communications network? The answer might come from the old telephone network: we pay for a company to connect our telephone number to the network, and sign up for their fair use policies in the process. Small breaches of good practice are handled by our provider, more serious ones by a central regulator or law enforcement.
In this model Twitter may retain a role as service provider, or this role may be taken up by those that provide our connectivity, much as they provide many people today with their email addresses.
Whatever happens I think Twitter’s lifespan in its current form is limited. Powerful, useful and entertaining as it has become, like any social network its hold on us is shallow. Its customer base is fickle and fast-moving. And its position in the market is under constant threat from some of the world’s most aggressive innovators.
I will continue to enjoy Twitter as a regular user. But I don’t expect to be celebrating its birthday in another seven years.