Twitter continues to thrive, increasing users monthly, and is up 422% in the past twelve months. As such it is impacting many areas of life, from where we get our news to how we do business.
It is a site, however, that has taken time for people to understand and embrace. Pre-Twitter, I don't think there were many people who were saying to themselves, "Boy, I sure wish there was a type of micro-blogging site where I could post up to 140 characters and follow other people. That would be so cool." It is what co-founder Biz Stone famously called ""the messaging system we didn't know we needed until we had it."
Yet Twitter has for many people become an important, if not the central means, of their online activity. How did this happen? What have been some of the key elements that have led to its' success? Below are the five main areas that I see.
1) Give Me a Means to Communicate Instead of Email
Email of course serves many important functions, but because it is no character limit to it, when we give our email address to another person, we are opening the door to seemingly endless communication, with no easy way to "turn it off" once we have started it.
Twitter has succeeded in part because it provides an entirely new means of communication that allows the sharing information in a controlled format, where people are not only forced to express themselves in 140 characters, but at any time the communication becomes tedious or unhelpful, one can simply unfollow or block another user.
This allows people to "be in touch" with large numbers of peoples while not getting buried in needing to read many long, rambling emails.
2) Eaves Drop Into My Life, Please
Another secret of Twitter's success is that it has ridden the wings of a population increasingly comfortable sharing details about their life, and wanting to learn the details of those whose lives interest them, whether it is a long-time friend, an author of a book they read, or a technology entrepreneur.
Pre-Twitter, this was not easy to do. Sure, I could get a thousand friends on MySpace or some other social network, but it would take me hours to visit each of their pages to read their latest post or blog entries. Twitter's success has in part been due to allowing people to both share and consume personal information.
3) Even the Rich and Famous Want Community
On a Friday night some time back, I was on Twitter when I noticed several recent tweets from billionaires, linking to articles they liked. I thought, "Of all the things they could be doing on a Friday night, of all the people they could be chatting with, and they are spending at least part of it on Twitter sharing articles!"
If we watch the patterns of most high profile Twitter users, Twitter is more than a marketing tool for them. It is also a way for them to share news and engage with average everyday people. Essentially, Twitter gives them a way to feel a sense of community with those beyond their immediate world. The so called rich and famous and those who want to learn about their lives now have a comfortable, safe, and somewhat intimate way of doing that.
4) Give Me Freedom in What Content I Post
Another element that has helped Twitter succeed is in giving people freedom in what kind of content they post. Pre-Twitter, content that we wanted to share generally occurred through emails to friends, or messages or posts on social networks, social news sites like Digg, and social bookmarking sites like Delicious. Yet there was no site, or at least very few sites, that essentially said, "Post whatever content you like, be it a thought you had or a story you came across on the Web" and made that easily viewable to large numbers of people.
Twitter has succeeded in part because it allows users to not just follow the news story a person recommends, but to receive whatever content that person thinks is worthy.
5) Give Me My Own Broadcasting Network
In our age of open communication that the Internet allows, mass media is losing its influence. Increasingly, it matters less what is reported on the nightly news and more what is discussed that day in social networks and blogs. In the past, a few large companies controlled what was determined as news. Our main influence was on family and friends in our immediate environment.
Social networks, and particularly Twitter, have succeeded in part because they have allowed people to have their own broadcasting network, a means to share and comment on both what they like and dislike that is occurring the world. Granted, someone may only have 50 "viewers" to their station, but if those 50 if those people also have 50 followers, information can spread fast.
Increasingly, people want to share their thoughts and views online, to have their own broadcasting network, and Twitter provides a simple yet effective means of doing that.
The most popular sites do not thrive simply due to their sophisticated technology (and this has certainly true of Twitter) but because their service overlaps with the desires and trends of a culture at a given time.
Of course, all these trends can, and likely will, change. Just when they will change and what will emerge to replace them is no doubt on the minds of thousands of entrepreneurs in small offices and garages across the country.
Yet to understand where we may be going, it helps to understand where we are now. And Twitter, likely more than any other site, reveals particular trends of our time, and its success has much to do with seeing and addressing those trends.
Soren Gordhamer works with individuals and groups on living with greater mindfulness and purpose in our technology-rich age. He is the author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected (HarperOne, 2009).