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How will fame change Twitter?

Henry Elliss
Henry Elliss
Managing Director
10 February 2009
Twitter-bird
If, like me, you are a regular twitterer, you’ll doubtless have been witnessing the recent boom in popularity that it’s received – particularly in the UK. Thanks in no small part to what will doubtless be referred to as the ‘Wossy Effect’, the mentions of Twitter in the mainstream media have sky-rocketed in the last month or so, and this is resulting in a huge upsurge in join-ups. Figures released recently show that traffic to the site has increased 27-fold in the past 12 months along. Speculation is rife about what the company’s next move will be – it is, after all, a site with no obvious revenue stream at the present (though that seems to have escaped some people). So what will the current attention that Twitter is receiving do to the site? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few days, and though I haven’t come to any one conclusion, I could make a few educated guesses…

Celebrity Friends

As I said above, if you’re a UK resident you’ll doubtless have been hearing numerous mentions of Twitter recently. Chris Moyles and his Radio 1 team have all joined the site (bar one – come in Comedy Dave, your time is up), and spend significant portions of their shows mentioning it; Jonathan Ross and Stephen Fry are in no small-part responsible for the recent upsurge in celebrity attention, having chatted about their twittering habits on the former’s chat show a few weeks back; All the dragons from Dragon’s Den were twittering (though their activity seems to have petered off already – and their accounts have disappeared… fake?), as are luminaries such as Phill Jupitus, Peter Mandelson, Demi MooreWill Carling, Richard Bacon, to name but a few. But how long will it be until the excitement wears off, and where will that leave Twitter?

The (fake?) dragons of Dragons Den – who had approx 3 weeks of frenzied twittering before appearing to get bored and revert back to their mobile phones to hold their private conversations (!) are unlikely to be alone in their actions. Just like any exciting new trend, the celebrities are sure to tire of Twitter soon enough (haven’t they got busy enough lives already?) and move on. Celebrities who don’t NEED Twitter will most likely lose interesting in the next few months – though I hasten to add that those that are already active in the Social Media space will more than likely stick with it longer. Regular bloggers like comedians Dave Gorman, Richard Herring (and to be fair, Stephen Fry) are all used to taking part in two-way conversations online, and Twitter is just an extension of that, so I can see them staying the course. But can anybody really see Lily Allen using Twitter in 6 months time? I don’t think so. And that isn’t any disrespect to Lily or Chris Moyles – I just can’t see them getting enough out of the site to make it worth their while. As anybody who is friends with a popular twitterer will know, once a member has more than 1,000-or-so followers, it’s very hard to hold a meaningful conversation with them, or indeed to follow their often-confusing feeds. So what will they get from the site that other mediums can’t give them?

HM210
So what happens once the celebrities start quietening down? Inevitably, the 100s or 1,000s of their fans that they’ve brought with them are going to get bored too – the amount of people that have joined in the past few weeks with the sole purpose of following celebrities is absolutely massive. And once those numbers start dropping, the media will quickly pick up in the dip and prematurely announce the death of Twitter (as they have been doing with Facebook for years now). Whilst the media (especially the newspapers) are very fond of announcing this kind of thing, it would be churlish to expect that it won’t have an effect on the site – if the brains behind the site have struck upon their big money-spinning idea by then, investors and market-watchers are bound to get itchy feet when any kind of dip happens, and we know what happens then.

Shiny New Gadgets

As with anybody (or any site) that suddenly becomes popular, the need to move with the times is going in increase massively. It happened with all the major social networks (some more quickly than others) and it will happen to Twitter – the need for change will grow. Whether it be a change to the layout, added functionality or lots of extra gadgets and add-ons, Twitter is going to have to expand and grow to hold people’s attentions. But for a site which revels in it’s own simplicity (it is, after all, a public messaging system) how will this affect it and it’s users?

Tweetdeck_128
There are already plenty of ‘add-ons’ to your Twitter experience, but they’ve all been developed by third parties. Just off the top of my head you have picture services like TwitPic, Windows-based services like Tweetdeck, mobile device apps like iTweet and Twitterberry, search sites like TwitterSearch, plus things like TwittyTunes, Shareaholic, Twittervision and many more.

If Twitter decided that they don’t want to develop their own applications (after all, as Facebook have proven it’s a lot cheaper to allow others to use your API) they COULD make some extra cash by charging developers a fee, or perhaps a license to let their applications integrate with the Twitter platform.

Money, Money, Money

Whilst most people who’d consider themselves ’in the know’ on such matters will tell you that the makers of Twitter have yet to find a way to monetise the site the average user today probably doesn’t realise that they are using a site which is for all intents and purposes completely free to them. There isn’t any intrusive advertising plastered all over the place; Your e-mail address hasn’t been sold to any unwelcome third-parties – you are using the site completely for free. But as any business mind will tell you (including Duncan Bannatyne, who recently twittered his horror at the fact that the owners hadn’t made any money from Twitter yet), sites that operate that way aren’t going to last for long. There are servers to pay for, developers to hire, offices to warm, etc etc – all of which require money. So how is Twitter going to get the coffers full?

how have these people got the time to "twitter", after seeing Jonathan Ross advertise twitter I would not be surprised if Mr Ross is being paid by "Twitter", and all it takes is for gullible people to follow and before you know it the people behind twitter will be net millionaires, nice work if you can get it!” [Source: Daily Mail

Many people with much more knowledge of these matters have been speculating for quite some time on this very conundrum. The first big indication from Twitter (or more specifically, one of the founders – Biz Stone) is that they are considering charging corporations for the privilege of broadcasting on the site. But one of the first big companies that has been using Twitter successfully is Dell, and they have in turn said "If it becomes complicated and costly, our instinct would be to move elsewhere" – so it remains to be seen how well that plan will work.

Flickr_logo
Other bloggers have speculated that the site should offer a “Twitter Pro” account, ala Flickr. ‘Pro’ users could receive added functionality, technical support, non 3rd-party photo uploads, video and much more. Additionally, Pro accounts often flourish because the basic version has been limited in some way – perhaps Twitter will limit the number of people you can follow, or the number of posts you can do per month? 

Surely the most obvious way, and one that is already been used thoroughly by 3rd-party twitter sites such, is on-page or contextual advertising. It wouldn’t take a lot of redesigning to stick a few banners in, or go even further and adopt the Facebook approach of sponsored tweets which appear in your feed. How would users react to this? Presumably the same way they have reacted on Facebook and MySpace – initial disdain followed by a return to normal service.

The Future

As I said at the beginning, I’m by no means a Twitter expert and the most likely next move will probably surprise us all – at least I hope it will. But it’s bound to include elements of the above, and monetisation has got to be a priority. With all the attention that the site is getting, the tidal wave is growing at an incredible pace. What’s the site going to look like when the wave hits the beach, and will the surfers riding on it’s crest still be in one piece? Only time will tell!
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