Twitter is the darling of the tech scene, much as Facebook was a couple of years ago and Flickr and MySpace before that. Many would probably argue that it’s had more attention than it deserves: all it does is let you post, share and read 140-character messages. Despite this, there’s been more talk about why it succeeds than why it doesn’t, as well as finding flaws in its play to become mainstream: despite being featured on Oprah, from month to month only 40% of users come back to the site. (I’m one of them.)
I’m surprised to see how few people have mentioned what I think is Twitter’s real killer feature: it integrates with your real life in a way that no other web app comes close to matching. Sure, people post to Twitter from their desktop PC, but they also post from the park, on the plane, and even from space. With the increasing popularity of truly Internet-capable mobile devices, it’s no surprise that everyone’s copying the Twitter model, from big players like Facebook and LinkedIn down to newcomers like Yammer.
The genius of web applications really lies in the ability to access them from any connected device. As the Internet moves away from the desktop and becomes a ubiquitous part of life, web applications need to adapt to be able to cope with the varied changes in context that we deal with every day. Life is complicated; to cope, web applications need to get simpler.
Let’s take a quick look at how Twitter does this:
- Tiny barrier to entry, with recognizable touchstones. Twitter is designed around an existing method of communication that people are already familiar with. SMS messages, sent back and forth on cellphones, are 160 characters long; Twitter messages are 140 characters long to fit comfortably inside this limit, along with 20 characters of contextual information. (Like, for example, the username of the person whose message you’ve just received on your phone.) You don’t need to learn any new techniques to learn how to use Twitter, although @replies and #hashtags are there for more advanced users. The short updates also encourage people to post more often, as it takes them a matter of seconds.
- People are the feature. The Twitter team understand that their biggest feature is the userbase themselves. People use Twitter for all sorts of things, and although newcomers are often a bit bemused or even repulsed by the lack of functionality, it’s exactly this that allows people to harness it for whatever makes sense to them. As I’m fond of saying, the Internet is people: Twitter simply acts as a low-friction conduit to allow them to talk to each other.
- An open, welcoming business ecosystem. The API – a way for third parties to build new interfaces for the service, for example for cellphones or iPods – is almost as simple to use as the site itself. As a result, it’s been said that around 80% of Twitter’s traffic is through API-based third-party clients. I use Tweetie on the iPhone and TweetDeck on my PC; I paid for the former, while the latter is free. Neither pays any royalty to Twitter; companies are free to build business on the back of the service. In return, Twitter gets interfaces that cater to use cases they didn’t think of.
There is always going to be a place for all-encompassing desktop applications. I have no need or desire to use Photoshop on my phone, for example – but mobile devices are a perfect platform for everything from simple searching, low-barrier accounting like Quicken Online, and the kind of distributed data-gathering we’re building at OutMap.
This doesn’t mean that copying Twitter is a smart business model at all. Instead, it’s worth looking at the factors that made them successful and then analysing which core features will work for you.