The Wheels on the Blog Go Tweet-Tweet-Tweet: The Hyper-Expanse of the Microblog
During those horrible moments on January 15th, when we didn't know if the passengers on the U.S. Airways flight sinking into the Hudson were alive or dead, a miracle was being born. No, it wasn't the miracle of pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III's landing, or the miracle of everyone escaping unharmed from the crash. It was the miracle of microblog Twitter finally surpassing the "cool" news aggregator Digg in popularity.
In the past two weeks, Twitter has gone from a cute little thingamajig you read about every once in awhile, to something that everyone's doing. Gawker has started stalking the "Twitterati," Huffington Post's Inaugural Ball featured a live Twitter feed on a giant screen and we ourselves Twittered the hell out of the whole Inauguration.
Estimates for the site's worth, without selling any ads, place it around $250 million. In the middle of a dearth of bloggers being paid to write, what is the appeal of a site that offers life updates in 140 characters or less?
The Twitter Effect
The snowballing of Twitter media in the last couple weeks can be summed up easily: If you write about Twitter, Twitter users will write about you. And in the era where nothing accounts for more of a site's revenue than inbound linkage, micro-blogs are the perfect venue to both write about and be written on. Consider this New York magazine story from 2006, which sought to find an answer to why some blogs were more popular than others:
Power laws are arguably part of the very nature of links. To explain why, Shirky poses a thought experiment: Imagine that 1,000 people were all picking their favorite ten blogs and posting lists of those links. Alice, the first person, would read a few, pick some favorites, and put up a list of links pointing to them. The next person, Bob, is thus incrementally more likely to pick Alice????????s favorites and include some of them on his own list. The third person, Carmen, is affected by the choices of the first two, and so on. This repeats until a feedback loop emerges. Those few sites lucky enough to acquire the first linkages grow rapidly off their early success, acquiring more and more visitors in a cascade of popularity. So even if the content among competitors is basically equal, there will still be a tiny few that rise up to form an elite.
Now back then, the best way to get your site linked was either in a blog post or on a blogroll. Both options were less than ideal, because they put the control in the hands of people who controlled these blogs. But with Twitter, the feedback loop is almost instantaneous, and in the hands of the users, not the bloggers. For example, a post written about the surge in Twittering will be picked up on Twitter, and with only 140 characters there is no space given for snarky commentary. The links speak for themselves, and in order to see what someone is referring to, you must click the link and read the article, thus providing another unique pageview for whomever wrote the piece in the first place.
So sure, it might be underhanded to keep writing up Twitter in the hopes that people will link back to you on the microblog platform, but it also represents a more egalitarian way to share information on the Internet. A combined social networking tool and RSS reader, Twitter allows for brands to promote themselves on the site, linking to articles about themselves or their company. This in turn causes users to pass the links on, gaining more and more traction in the Twitterverse until U.S. Airways starts their own account in response to all the tweets going out about the Hudson River incident.
But Is It Sustainable?
Before the 15th, Twitter was mainly known as a punch line to the joke of how far technology could take us away from professional journalism. Remember the Rocky Mountain newspaper that Twittered a little boy's funeral? Similar stories were passed around as a reminder that there are just some events that are inappropriate to cover with sentence-long updates every five minutes. If traditional journalism is dying, Twitter journalism has yet to be born, and we are still feeling our way in the dark about the costs/benefits of keeping people in the know about the mundanities of life, 24/7.
What's even more frustrating to potential investors is that there is seemingly no way to calculate how much money can be made off the site, or how to do it. By putting ads on each individual Tweet, a la YouTube's new service policy? Subscription-based fees? Selling online goods like Facebook? Viral marketing? No one can seem to agree on the best way to invest their money on a site that's fast rocketing into the Big Players stratosphere, but may fall just as quickly under the crush of new traffic without a feasible way to sustain itself.
But how does any online community end up making its bandwidth rent? With the oldest profession in the books, of course. Coed Magazine's recent article on porn stars that Twitter may have struck upon Internet gold. Much like Second Life became sustainable only after users decided to spend all their money on virtual real estate and porn, Twitter could benefit from a similar subscription-based policy of linking "preferred members" to a bulk of these porn star Twitters. Same goes with celebrity tweets, of which there are more every day. In fact, Twitter could make some money by lumping these specialty users into different categories – media, fashion, singers, actors, etc. – and then charging a one-time fee to subscribe to the network of potential first-hand sources. They could also draw users by paying celebrities or important Twitterati a small fee to make daily/hourly/minute-by-minute updates.
Think about it: Updates from Anna Wintour on the state of her position at Vogue without all the annoying hassle of going through her PR team. And since Twitter seems to appeal as much to the older generations of reporters and editors as it does to the young'ins (perhaps because writing small blips in a tiny box and pressing "send is even easier than an email!), there is a limitless amount of potential on who you could get to promote themselves on your site. If American Apparel is already doing it, why shouldn't you?