Twitter: more mainstream than it looks

by Mathew on April 28, 2008 · 25 comments

My friend Kara Swisher has a post up about Twitter, in which she talks about an informal poll she took of some friends at a wedding, and how none of them had ever heard of Twitter. Everyone had heard of Facebook, however, and about half of them had an account. Is that surprising? Not really. I’ve done similar polls of my non-geek friends (yes, I have some), and virtually no one had any idea what I was talking about. But when I described it as being like the Facebook status update crossed with MSN Messenger, most of them totally got it.

It wasn’t that long ago that having a Facebook account was unusual for someone not in university. I can still remember telling people that I had one, and getting nothing but blank stares — and now most of those people have an account, or have at least heard of it. I’m also old enough to remember when a chat application called ICQ came along in 1997, and I quickly became a heavy user, along with some of my close friends. No one else had any idea what we were talking about then either. But by 2000, Microsoft had launched Messenger, and within a couple of years it had hundreds of millions of accounts.

Is the potential market for a “group chat” application like Twitter as broad as the market for instant messaging apps? Probably not — especially with a 140-character limit, which some people might enjoy as a kind of haiku-style restriction, but some would likely see as ridiculous (is there a shortage of electrons?). And it may not be as large as the market for Facebook either. But I don’t think the concept of Twitter is quite as foreign as many people make it out to be — and certainly no more foreign than the idea of “instant messaging” was not all that long ago. And as MG Siegler notes, there are some pretty cool apps being built on top of it.

Update:

Mike Arrington has some Twitter stats from a source inside the company.

  • http://doncrowley.blogspot.com dccrowley

    When twitter goes mainstream it will be awesome. I live in a village, work in nearest town. I can see great uses for it among me and my fellow villagers. I might use 2 accounts and clients to keep the geeks and farmers apart!

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Good one, Don :-)

  • duarte

    I think that's an accurate assessment. Most of my friends have asked me in person or online about Twitter after seeing my Facebook status as: Duarte is twittering: <fill in the blank>. The first question usually is “What is this twittering thing?” Some get it; most do not.

    p.s. I too am old enought o have been a heavy ICQ user.

  • http://broadcasting-brain.com Mark Dykeman

    Your comments about the lack of a Twitter business model in a recent post made me think a bit about how it could work. One of the things that I thought of was the ability to remove the 140 chr. limit for a paid account, although I have no idea how Twitter would be able to do that without massive reengineering. To me, that and reliability are the only major barriers to Twitter becoming a more broadly accepted group chat medium. At the same time, if you have to pay for it… might not be so attractive.

  • http://leighhimel.blogspot.com leigh

    I think adoption cycles have become so short and the lifespan of cool even shorter, that the expectation is that the network will accept or reject in 18m or less.

    I guess since they are 2 years old the assumption is they should have crossed the chasm by now?

  • http://therealmccrea.com therealmccrea

    Great post. I think the comparison to early days of IM is apt.

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  • http://gangles.ca/ Matthew Gallant

    I've had the exact same reaction among non-geek friends, one of them even interpreted what I said as the actual verb “twitter.”

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  • Thusenth

    Twitter is a very lonely app when you're the only one on it. There's only so many tweets you can do before it hits you that no one is reading them.

    If a person tweets in the cloud and there is nobody following, is there a reason to tweet?

  • http://carrieanddanielle.com Daniel Gibbons

    I think the difference is that Twitter really doesn't have mainstream utility. For example, when Michael Arrington talks about it being a critical source of breaking news, he's generally referring to news literally no-one outside of the tech. blogosphere remotely cares about.

    IM applications such as ICQ allowed people to communicate more rapidly and efficiently, so while like most new technology their roots were in the early adopter crowd, they contained a killer feature ordinary people could relate to.

    I found MG Siegler's analysis that it's all about investing the time to follow and be followed to be indicative of how the insular tech world just doesn't understand normal people. You know, people who don't have the luxury of whiling away a few hours to force themselves into unnatural social behaviours so they can enjoy Twitter's benefits.

    Don't get me wrong, I actually do like Twitter, but I couldn't do my job without IM. And I agree with Leigh, above, that Twitter's probably had enough time to demonstrate mainstream appeal and utility.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, John.

  • whydowork

    I side with bluelines on this one.

    IM is easy for the non-tech guru to understand and use. Your friend has an IM account, you have an IM account and you have an instant communication channel to communicate.

    Twittering into 'the cloud' and getting feedback works for those who understand what the cloud is, which are the same crowd that love the idea of cloud computing. :)

    There is mass appeal within the nerd community which is why the apps are being pumped out so quickly, but I doubt my mom (who does use msn messenger) will be joining anytime soon.

  • http://leighhimel.blogspot.com Leigh

    And I would say even worse, kids think Twitter is the older persons communication method…..that to me creates huge limitations for it going into the future.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's why I think Twitter needs to be part of something larger –
    something that offers traditional IM-type features, text messaging to
    mobiles, Facebook status updates, etc. It's dumb to have to use three
    separate tools to do all of that. It's like having to use a separate
    phone for long-distance calls.

  • http://twitter.com/timmcdoniel Timothy McDoniel

    My friends and family aren't on Twitter and they don't really 'get' it. But that's okay. The only way Twitter won't be so lonely is to just follow people that share your interests. Alot of them will return the 'follow' and you'll get to engage with some pretty interesting people. Some will just send neat links, some will make you laugh, I've even got alot of beta invites just by asking someone who started talking about it. For Twitter not to be lonely, you shouldn't depend on friends and family to make it worthwhile. Send tweets about what's going on, things you find interesting, etc. Soon you'll have people following you to hear what you've got to say. I do have a number of family and friends on Facebook, so I just installed an app their, that feeds my tweets into it. :-)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Excellent advice, Timothy.

  • http://technologyinmind.com Timothy McDoniel

    My friends and family aren't on Twitter and they don't really 'get' it. But that's okay. The only way Twitter won't be so lonely is to just follow people that share your interests. Alot of them will return the 'follow' and you'll get to engage with some pretty interesting people. Some will just send neat links, some will make you laugh, I've even got alot of beta invites just by asking someone who started talking about it. For Twitter not to be lonely, you shouldn't depend on friends and family to make it worthwhile. Send tweets about what's going on, things you find interesting, etc. Soon you'll have people following you to hear what you've got to say. I do have a number of family and friends on Facebook, so I just installed an app their, that feeds my tweets into it. :-)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Excellent advice, Timothy.

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