Will Twitter make it?

August 12, 2008, 3:20 PM UTC
Fortune

On one of my visits to Twitter’s hip South of Market offices in San Francisco I got into a conversation about blogging and Twittering with one of the founders of both trends, Evan Williams. He founded Blogger, which he sold to Google (GOOG), and owned the company from which Twitter hatched a couple years ago. He told me he’d grown weary of discussing and defending blogging, which I can understand. The whole journalist-versus-blogger debate is getting old. He also told me Twitter is going to be “really big.” Will it?

I’ve spent a couple months now in the Twittersphere, culminating with the article I wrote in the current issue of Fortune. I’m not typically an early adopter on this sort of thing, and in fact I didn’t really get interested in Twitter until Michael Arrington explained to me how he uses it to promote TechCrunch. Like a lot of people, I’d heard about Twitter but didn’t really have a sense of why in the world I’d want to use it.

Now that I’ve used it for a bit, I’m still not sure. No doubt it’s fun. I still think the people who use it to say what they had for breakfast or what they’re feeling at the moment are almost completely wasting their time and mine. (In my article, I teased Padmasree Warrior, the CTO of Cisco (CSCO). She can take the teasing, but check out her tweets for yourself. I’m also hearing repeatedly about how other services, like FriendFeed, are making Twitter obsolete. For example, startup Tapulous, which is building applications for Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone, has a free program called Twinkle that works on Twitter but also without Twitter. Given Twitter’s poor record at keeping its service running, it’s ominous that a new service could accomplish the same thing without using Twitter itself.

Still, when I tell the uninitiated about Twitter, I’m typically met with hostility along the lines of, ‘What’s the point?’ My biggest takeaway: Being judgmental is a waste of time. If the kids want to use it, and they seem to want to, isn’t it foolish to judge?

If Twitter has a future, what I think will be key to its success is the serendipity of finding people with shared interests. MySpace and Facebook are interesting self-publishing platforms. But we all know we can’t really keep track of hundreds of friends. With Twitter, the bar is lower. It’s a network of affinity groups, and the groupings change instantaneously with little time or energy invested. This is why a New York Times reporter used Twitter to find people who were interested in viewing the Olympics (see David Carr’s column that explains this) one day but might use it another time to find people who like a certain rock band. What’s exciting about Twitter, and other sites like it, is that people find uses even its designers didn’t anticipate. My buddy Jim Ledbetter’s new business-news site is using Twitter simply to note observations each morning from The Wall Street Journal. Paul Kedrosky, the venture-capital analyst, cleverly uses his tweets to draw people into his blog.

But will Twitter make it? Its founders insist they have ideas for making money, and I suggest a few in the article. Silicon Valley cynics think Twitter will make a nice feature for a Google or a Yahoo (YHOO). Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told me something that impressed me. He said he admires Google’s pacing (his word choice) and that he hopes Twitter can emulate it. Pacing is an important concept in storytelling and, presumably, in company building as well. Now that could be an excuse for why it’s taking Twitter so long to build a reliable service. Or perhaps it’s a description of what the often ugly process of starting something new looks like. I’ll keep following this. Follow me (that’s Twitter talk, FYI), here.