Rory Cellan-Jones

Twitter at the tipping point

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 19 Apr 08, 09:42 GMT

Suddenly everyone is talking Twitter. Just as Facebook hit the mainstream a year ago, so the short message social network has become the media flavour of this month - to such an extent you can even find me talking about it on the Today programme.

But I'm not convinced that Twitter is really going to spread in the way Facebook did, beyond the digerati into millions of people's lives. What's more, I'm struggling to understand the business model.

The appeal of Twitter - and the thing that has persuaded me to spend more time there than on other social networks - is that it distills the essence of Facebook and chucks away most of the annoying stuff.

I'd long tired of all the poking, vampires, SuperWalls and countless applications which cluttered up what was once a clean interface. What I still value is the status updates which allow me to see at a glance what my friends - and distant acquaintances - are up to, and that is what I get on Twitter.

I first joined a year ago, then ditched it after protests from a wife driven mad by my constantly tweeting phone. I've reactivated it in the last month after noticing how many Facebook friends were linking to their Twitter updates. This time around, using a desktop application called Twhirl, and another Twitter app on my phone's browser, has made the whole service more flexible and attractive - and less noisy.

Mind you, the only people I'm really finding there at the moment are what you might call the hardcore technology crowd. I've just glanced through the list of 50 Twitterers I'm following right now, and they're almost exclusively other technology journalists, bloggers, entrepreneurs, BBC colleagues and other vaguely techie types. So I'm still visiting Facebook to keep abreast of what the rest of my social circle is doing.

Unlike Facebook, whose tipping point came as students left college and spread it through the workplace, Twitter shows few signs of breaking out of its core demographic. The non-tech people I talk to about it still don't get the point.

Now this may not matter if the million or so regular users (that's the best guess I've seen) make up a prosperous, focused community who can be served targeted advertising. But so far Twitter has not pushed any advertising at its users, and it is difficult to see where - on a service which is all about using limited space to communicate - it will find the real estate to place marketing messages.

Now despite the chillier wind blowing through the technology investment scene, Ning, a site which enables users to create their own social networks, has just raised new capital at a valuation of $500 million. It has apparently found that targeting advertising to its myriad of micro-communities is a lucrative path to follow, with each of those networks sharing in the revenue.

Ning had an advertising-based business model from the start, but it's far more difficult to introduce ads to a bunch of people who've grown used to a nice clean service, where they can concentrate on communicating. Just ask Facebook.

Apparently Twitter's managers are indeed wary about antagonising users with advertising, and are talking instead of marketing premium accounts to businesses who would use it to communicate with Twitterers like me. I don't think that is going to be any more attractive to the community.

I shared a communal cold shiver with a fellow technology journalist the other day when a PR firm started "following" both of us on Twitter. It's the eternal problem for social networking entrepreneurs. The minute they start to try to "monetise" their users, they risk eroding the very thing that this community values - clean, noise-free communication.

So I'm sure we will be talking about Twitter a lot in the coming months. But unless its founders find a way to make money from all that twittering by the end of this year, the conversation could die.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think you're right that Twitter itself will find it hard to make money from advertising - if it goes down the intrusive Facebook path or starts reading or tweets to target stuff then we'll just move on now (I'm in your hardcore group of techie types). But they could sell the technology into firms - Twitter's a lot nicer for group working and internal comms than most of the IM services out there - or sell to other social networks as an embedded part of the service. Not all income comes from advertising, after all....

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm obsessed with the idea of getting my extended family Twittering. But they just won't do it, which frustrates me massively. As you say, outside the 'hardcore tech' element, some struggle to see the point of it all.

  • Comment number 3.

    I've found twitter's introductory video helpful when attempting to explain twitter to non-techies.

    Even as a hardcore tech person :D I see tweets as falling into different categories, and I've been thinking about how I can separate them. One is status updates, which twirl and other apps display nicely for me, and if i miss a few in an avalanche of tweets, that's OK. But I also see useful "work" material on twitter - links to interesting sites, information about upcoming events and conferences - and I don't want to miss out on this kind of thing. It's more what I would "traditionally" use an RSS feed reader for, storing articles in various categories until I have time to process them. I could set up two (or more) twitter accounts to cover these, but some of my twitter friends mix and match status and, well, content, and I would prefer not to go through their stuff twice. Still pondering this one.

    There's also the increasing use of twitter for machines: local ferries twitter their departures; telescopes twitter what bit of space they are looking at; electricity meters twitter usage and cost warnings.

  • Comment number 4.

    I wonder if you have come across Elgg Voices

    It is very similar to Twitter. It's still under development and not yet fully released and I don't know what the business model will be - perhaps adverts or optional premium services. I think the idea is that you can start your own personal Elgg Voice channel and confine membership and visibilty to a specific group, work, friends or perhaps family. The button that invites you to get started and create a channel is not live yet. Might be worth keeping an eye on.

  • Comment number 5.

    I've been wondering also how Twitter will ever start to make money. Even if ads do appear in streams, they will be appearing to (as you say) the tech crowd who find a natural home in what can be an incomprehensible place for others - and techies are as skilled as avoiding and ignoring ads as anyone.

    I can't get people in my own highly net-savvy workplace to try twitter. They're still very stuck on Facebook (though actually, they're really very stuck on Scrabulous more than anything else). I personally find twitter incredibly helpful for simply tracking what's going on with subjects that matter to my daily work and personal life more than anything else: keyword tracking is the killer piece of twitter.

    And I think that may be where Twitter can start to think about making money without ads: a premium service with the ability to track and store particular keywords and tweets from people; offering the chance to manage more than one twitter a/c from the same login; better sorting and management of what can be a really messy UI; and so on.

  • Comment number 6.

    Funny you wrote about this just today. I was chatting with a colleague about the fact that I was seeing an increase in the people following me at and

  • Comment number 7.

    I agree that Twitter seems to be stuck in a tech-only world. At my workplace we are starting to utilize twitter to discuss teaching and education techniques, which may be one way to branch it out. Not that educators are a good source of revenue, but maybe from there it can get into athletics? Play-by-play thoughts from players, fans and coaches?

  • Comment number 8.

    As a curious techie I signed up to Twitter last week despite the fact that I didn't really see the point of it. But, with all the buzz surrounding it, I just had to check it out.

    Now I see the point - it's a nice, simple, but effective way of being updated on your contacts thoughts/movements/musings.

    Like you mention, I don't see how they are going to make money out of it. As soon as I see adverts appearing in my 'feed' I won't use it any more.

  • Comment number 9.

    According to Techcrunch, twitter was testing ads recently [www_techcrunch_com]

    And there's been discussion of Premium versions...

    But their "business model" seems to be to build a huge number of users on the free service, then work out how best to add money into the equation.

  • Comment number 10.

    Thanks for this Rory.

    The opening two pars were of such staggering pretentiousness I had the biggest belly-laugh of my morning reading. keep it up!

  • Comment number 11.

    guess my crowd of friends must be really early adopters then, we've been twittering for months and we're not techies. It's just we're spread all around the country and only meet up every now and then, so it's great for keeping in touch without the trouble of going to a long blog post.

    So thinking that there are only geeks on there is very wrong.

    No idea what the business model is ever going to be, and if it disappears, it disappears, but for the time being we enjoy it.

  • Comment number 12.

    I believe that the point of Twitter is the concept of 'microblogging'. It always seemed pointless to me to write out brief summaries of my life on my blog, as it took a lot of time and effort to do it. I found myself writing less and less, until eventually I stopped. Not from having nothing to say, but having bits to say about lots of things, but not enough (I felt) to write an entire article about it.

    Twitter, is something that I can use which fills my need. I use it on my iPhone with Twinkle, which locates me, and also hooks my camera in to allow me to attach a photo to my tweet.

    Not only that, but the easy to use API has been plugged into my blog, so I'm still able to keep people updated when I don't have the time to write long blog entries.

  • Comment number 13.

    I've always considered blogging the work of egomaniacs. Fair enough to share your thoughts and insight with the world (thank you!) if you are getting paid for it, as journalists and columnists do. But to throw it into the ether voluntarily? My view has always been that the "reward" such people hunted down was knowing their word was valued by others - wannabe authors or hacks but with not enough worthwhile to say that anyone would pay for it.

    But micro-blogging? What can anyone tell me, in just a few words, that I might find valuable or, to cut that some slack, interesting? "Martin is sitting down to Sunday lunch"? Big deal! This is surely vanity publishing gone mad.

    I'm a techie - I run a social networking business - but I don't believe that means my words are worthing interrupting your life for.

  • Comment number 14.

    It's not all techies on Twitter. Anti-death penalty activist and author of Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean, is tweeting ( and she's blogged about it, too (

  • Comment number 15.

    Chaos theory teaches us that from a simple initial condition, endless complexities emerge.

    So it is with Twitter--a very simple principle, but with a multitude of manifestations and ramifications.

    It seems that some of the previous commenters don't "get it".

    For example, wecandobiz writes "I don't believe that means my words are worthing interrupting your life for." This misses the point entirely. Twitter is not about interrupting, but about communicating. And doing so with an unprecedented immediacy and brevity.

    Users have a choice on whose tweets they follow and how often they choose to retrieve that information.

    Lack of understanding is partly the fault of the Twitter question "What are you doing?" This is supposed to prompt the 140 character or less response. No, we're not interested most of the time in the boring functions of daily life of most people. It takes considerable hubris to assume that others will be interested in the routine minutiae of your comings and goings.

    But if you actually look at what "tweets" comprise, few are about what people are "doing". Most are about what people are thinking, feeling, trying out, exploring, talking about; in other words, about the external manifestation of their consciousness. This is the power and relevance of Twitter. Hence wecandobiz's humility is misplaced.

    We are looking at the collective conscious (to borrow from the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious).

    One recent Twitterer gathered together such motivations by asking "why do you love Twitter?" The answers were pasted into a video, posted here

    I regularly blog on such issues, including Twitter's business model, on my website,

    Follow me on Twitter:

  • Comment number 16.

    You're right most people don't get it, but I think they soon will. The tipping point for me will be when my mom starts to twitter. However, I think you're wrong in thinking that most people won't accept ads - while may of the early adopters are hard core tech geeks, we're also funded and fed by online ad for me if it meant keeping the tweets alive, I'd be happy to see an ad every few tweets... and guess what the smart marketers are already leveraging twitter to further their business initiatives whether its podcast sales or increased traffic to their sites (funded by ads), and there is even twitter spam that takes you to link farms and domain parkers with adsense on them.

    I'd rather see those ad dollars going to twitter for the value it provides me...insights from top luminaries, being one of the first to hear of news and trends, and the sense of community i have with those i follow and whom follow me.

  • Comment number 17.

    I don't think anyone will ever make any money out of Twitter. It's just too simple. There's nothing to it. What is more, aggregators like Jaiku and Friendfeed mean that you don't even have to have all your friends on the same service in order to interact with them.

  • Comment number 18.

    The key to twitter, is tying it in with networks like facebook. The market for these sort of social tools is becoming crowded, so they either have to be pure simple genius enabling the masses or a hardcore niche audience, and ideally able to work with existing networks and environments.

    Twitter works for some people, others don't get it or feel the need to document their life, which is why not everyone in the world keeps a written diary.

    Not sure if twitter will grow in the same way as facebook, but its got a decent chance now it can be integrated.

  • Comment number 19.

    I believe Twitter can easily make money.

    1) introducing an exclusive adform and suing companies how would do it otherwise

    2) contextual adds next to a persons twits (based on the twit or the tweetcloud)

    3) giving the possibility to rest ad free for a year for 5 dollar

    4) giving the possibility to be paid for willing to receive adds that are well targeted and in the adform (sharing revenue)

    5) making it possible to post longer tweets (1 euro/tweet)

    6) making it possible to use colors in tweets (1 euro/tweet)

    and this are only six ways I can come up with right now.

    - Pieter Jansegers

  • Comment number 20.

    I tried the Twitter search facility to look for people in my gmail address book who had Twitter accounts. Out of 595 contacts (most of whom are techies of some sort), only two had Twitter accounts associated with their email address.

    I like Twitter and would love to use it more but my contacts don't seem to feel the same.

  • Comment number 21.

    I'm definitely one of the digerati types, but I find Twitter pretty useful, despite that it can be quite buggy.

    Even though they don't seem to want to SMS me, messages being limited to 140-characters means it's easy enough to catch up on messages online — and to do so quickly. By contrast, I don't remember when I last logged into my LiveJournal friends page. Indeed I don'remember when I last posted to LJ, yet I've posted to Twitter a few times today already.

    My main gripe with Twitter is that, as soon as one has a certain ratio of followers to following (or possibly a certain number of followers), one seems to be bombarded with spammers. I get two or three emails a day telling me I'm being followed by someone I've never heard of; when I look them up, they're almost invariably someone with no real content on their feed, five followers and are following 1000 other users.

    Somehow merely blocking them isn't satidfying enough…

  • Comment number 22.

    I am a techie type working in education. I'm trying everything new to see what works. I have just embedded my work tweets onto our blog.

    I'm trying to make teachers more aware of web 2.0 which most of just aren't interested in.

    Twitter, has a potential for simply delivering instant updates, which can be useful, its simply a case of being able to sort the Wheat from the Chaff. Or users actually posing useful Tweets and not stuff like, " stroking the cat".

  • Comment number 23.

    For those who care to look me up

  • Comment number 24.

    It's all about making a community these days; I think Twitter is the verge of rising up...

    But I don’t think it will last for long...

    My guess is, it will soon be taken over by a big company.

  • Comment number 25.

    I think it hasn't taken off because most people dont care about being constantly updated on such trivial little things. The status update on Facebook is used minimally compared to other aspects of the network but this doesn't justify the need for a dedicated 'status' site. The interest of such a network will remain with the techies untill the general public throw away their mobiles and plug in permanantly.

  • Comment number 26.

    Twitter is at it's peak right now, so they need to do something quick to make some sort of bucks.

    I love Twitter and grew bored of Facebook much more quickly.

    I love showing off and telling people my thoughts. It's what the web is all about these days.

  • Comment number 27.

    I think my Twitter experience is in line with most people here - it holds a dual purpose for me. On one hand, tweets from blogs, websites or people that are of interest to me in terms of work/leisure provide the bulk of my Twitter useage - updates on Ferries, Motorways, Planes and the like are a great bonus, as i have to travel regularly. Overall, i feel that Twitter is a fantastic tool - much more flexible than traditional social media websites, although they still serve a wider purpose.


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