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used Twitter and laugh.”

Indeed, with the help of Twitter’s application programming interface (API), which enables outside developers to access its content, constellations of applications and startups have already expanded the service’s reach (and some have begun selling advertising). StockTwits, for example, provides an easy way to sift through any tweets that discuss stocks. TweetDeck helps twitterers find categories of tweets to follow. Bit.ly creates shortened versions of Web links that can fit inside tweets. TweetMeme aggregates links found within tweets. Twitpic offers photo distribution. (Most famously, it carried a close-up photo of the US Airways jet adrift in the Hudson, passengers huddled on its wings. The shot was captured by ferry passenger and twitterer Janis Krums.) And so, in November, Twitter ditched “What are you doing?” Now tweets answer the question “What’s happening?”

Despite growth, many Twitter users aren’t very active. Most have few followers …

A shifting Web

The change in Twitter’s prompt reflects a shift in the nature of the Web itself. Not only has the medium grown far more social, but online social networks increasingly trade in important real-time information. Adding to the cacophony are proliferating blogs, reports from news organizations, reader comments, and feeds from various other sources. Data feeds, search engines like Google, and easy-to-use widgets–those little on-screen tools that do things like display stock prices or news headlines–can provide instant access to much of this information. “In 2009, we saw this incredible shift of users–and of their attention and focus–to the real-time Web,” says John Borthwick, CEO of Betaworks, an Internet media company in New York City that has invested in or launched startups including Bit.ly, TweetDeck, and Summize, a Twitter search tool bought by Twitter in 2008. “It represents a whole new round of innovation, disrupting the way people do the fundamental things they do online.” And, he adds, sites like Twitter and Facebook–which has 350 million account holders–are increasingly the first stop for people seeking real-time news.

Of course, that’s easy to say–but it’s hard to measure and document. Twitter will not share numbers, and third-party measurement of Web audiences has long been dodgy (see “But Who’s Counting?” March/April 2009 and at technologyreview.com). Measurement is hardest of all with media such as Twitter, because the most common unit of Web usage–page views–doesn’t really apply. Tweets, after all, aren’t pages; they’re the units that make up data streams moving across many platforms and being consumed in myriad ways. As people spend less time on pages and more time sampling streams of data, tracking their behavior becomes extremely difficult. “The majority of what goes on with Twitter doesn’t happen on our website,” Williams says. “Quantifying Twitter is really hard. That is part of why we don’t share numbers, because they are always misleading. We are getting better at it, but it kind of drives us crazy.” Still, one proxy–Web-address shortening–gives a sense of how much Twitter and the real-time Web have grown. The number of times people clicked on Bit.ly addresses to open them exploded last year; in December, people did this nearly 2.3 billion times.

In this evolving world, Twitter stands out in many ways. In contrast to communications within many online social networks, tweets by their very nature aim to report something to the world at large. (Facebook posts have long been private by default, but the company is trying to encourage more public posts through changes in its privacy settings.) RJMetrics, a business analytics firm in Camden, NJ, estimates that Twitter has 75 million accounts and that 15 million are responsible for most traffic. Though Facebook’s membership dwarfs those figures, “in terms of relative availability of data, Twitter is number one with a bullet,” says Eric Marcoullier, a cofounder of Gnip, a company based in Boulder, CO, that aggregates available information from sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Digg for other websites and companies.

… and aren’t doing much tweeting.

As a result, Twitter has “enormous opportunities” to sell data for commercial use, says Brad Feld, a managing director at the venture capital firm Foundry Group, also in Boulder, CO (it is not a Twitter investor). A local restaurant might want to be notified if Twitterers are saying something negative; Toyota might want data on mentions of its products–as well as competitors’ products–to adjust a sales pitch or a product feature. Packaging and providing such data, for a fee, is clearly something Twitter could start doing, Feld says. He adds that the company could eventually sell keyword-based ads as well.

Tweet Rank

Though Twitter aspires to be the planet’s pulse, its own physiology is a bit weak in some areas. The company has no apparent ownership rights to the basic technology for microblogging; its only real assets are its brand and user base. And while Twitter data in theory should be salable to

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Credits: Ben Baker/Redux, Tommy McCall
Video by David Talbot, edited by Brittany Sauser

Tagged: Business, Web, Twitter

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