Monday, October 18, 2010

Twitter The Noisy Internet News Channel

I must admit I didn't see Twitter succeeding anything beyond early adopters. When I first signed up on Twitter back in Summer of 2008, I remember thinking that Twitter was just another Facebook status update knockoff. I thought it would just quietly disappear into technology landfill. Boy, I was dead wrong.

Twitter has now more traffic than MySpace, and only after Facebook and Microsoft Windows Live Profile. If you have Hotmail account, you know that Microsoft Windows Live is really Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn integration with Hotmail, so it is not really a social network designed from ground up. This means Twitter is really number two in social network popularity ranking.

Twitter seems to have momentum behind them as well, growing traffic by 76% from year ago same time. (Facebook grew by 54% from year ago, with 598 million unique visitors.) Twitter will increasingly become stickier number two social network site for challengers to contend with.

In my earlier blog entry, I compared Twitter with real-time stream of Post-It notes on public bulletin board. While I think that analogy used to hold true, I see that Twitter has adjusted to the market need after seeing how public has adopted Twitter. Twitter has realized that most users are using Twitter as breaking news forum.

In this blog, I wanted to extend the breaking news forum analogy further, and talk a bit about challenges lying ahead for Twitter with this new market focus.

Following As Tuning In

When you sign up for Twitter first, you don't see anything on your news ticker channel (Facebook calls this 'news feed', and Twitter calls it 'timeline'). That is because you haven't tuned into any news source. Once you tune in (called 'following' in Twitter) to your friend Larry, you are getting Larry's news updates ('tweets' in Twitter) in your news channel.

Tuning-in in Twitter is different from asking someone to become a friend in Facebook. As most of you know, Facebook requires Larry, in the above example, to accept the friend request. If Larry denies, relationship is broken and you can no longer get updates from Larry. But it is different in Twitter. You can tune in to as many people as you'd like without waiting for their approval. Twitter assumes that Larry is okay with you following him. Unless Larry explicitly denies your tuning-in, Larry's news updates will show on your news ticker.

As you find more news reporters to tune in to or 'follow', you can add more news sources to your news ticker channel. When you tune in to new users, you are adding more news sources to enrich your news channel.

Twitter As Public Plaza

By default when you sign up for Twitter, everything is visible to everyone else. Sharing all contents is not really surprising given all social networking sites drive their values from individual users acting as information producers. What is interesting, however, is the way Twitter makes all status updates publicly searchable.

For example, if you want to find out about what's being said about Starbucks, you can simply search for 'starbucks' and find out what people are talking about Starbucks right at that moment.

Imagine, if you will, a very large plaza where all twitter users are standing around. Each user has his or her own microphone where they are recording their own news update ('status update'). Any one has power to tune in to what any one else is saying. But Twitter also makes it easy to aggregate news updates by topic and instantly creating a news ticker channel for that topic (example of searching for 'starbucks').

It's also important to realize that Twitter allows non-Twitter users to search all tweets. How can Twitter get away with this while Facebook cannot? It's partly because Facebook has been smashing success with by far the most users, but also because the way Twitter has designed their UI/UX. Twitter users understand they are posting information to be shared by everyone because any one can tune in ('follow') any one at any time.

"What's Happening?" Not "What Are You Doing?"
Report On News Not Your Activity

Twitter realizes this metaphor change. In addition to Twitter touting themselves as breaking news medium, shift from Post-It notes to news channel is visible on Twitter UI and feature.

Early Twitter users may recall the old status update text area labeled "what are you doing?" Now, it is labeled "what's happening?" Twitter is asking for latest news to be entered, even if it's not about what you are doing.

Another feature helping Twitter bolster its place in breaking news channel is geo-location support. By knowing where the news update is made viewers ('followers' in Twitter) can find out where the news is breaking.

So it seems Twitter is well aware of its usage shifting to covering breaking news. With increasing traffic and awareness, what kind of challenges would Twitter need to solve?

Who The Heck Is Kim Hee Chul?

Kim Hee Chul is one recent example that illustrates Twitter's challenge. Who is Kim Hee Chul? He is a member of Korean pop band called Super Junior. It turns out he tweeted a number of self-drawn pictures, and fans started to retweet them in massive numbers. His name ended up topping Twitter's trending list over last week beating Chilean miner rescue, Nobel prize winners, NFL, and MLB.

Be Aware of Empty-Calorie Tweets
It's okay to have Asian pop stars topping trending topic. It demonstrates rapid adoption of Twitter among Asian teenagers. The problem is what I call empty-calorie tweets. If you look at many of tweets that helped 'Kim Hee Chul' top the trending chart, they are copy-and-tweeted messages that have little meaning other than to hype 'Kim Hee Chul' as Twitter trending topic. These are closer to spam than meaningful news update.

These are problem to Twitter because it creates unnecessary amount of traffic that Twitter has to support. These may not have bothered Twitter until now, but as they focus on becoming internet breaking news media, they'll need to be careful where their investment is being spent on.

Perhaps bigger problem is quality degradation of news updates. In social network life cycle, once popularity is gained, the next challenge is maintaining the popularity and viability of the media. And to do that, social network must demonstrate to the users that the network is healthy and noise-to-signal ratio is kept low. It's like webmail sites fighting to keep spam email counts low. If noise-to-signal ratio rises to the level that the users find it objectionable, people will start to leave. Then social network will be suffer from what Matt Huang calls Evaporative Cooling Effect.

Challenge for Twitter is to balance these. They'll need to balance noise-to-signal ratio so that they maintain their strong traffic growth, yet keep the quality from going down the drain.  Not so easy order for fledgling internet news channel.

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