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Is Twitter The New Wikipedia?

Watching Ashton Kutcher beat CNN to a million followers must have created a strain of Iago's green-eyed envy among mainstream media folks, which may be why they've been so quick to pounce Twitter's recent hiccup.
Watching Ashton Kutcher beat CNN to a million followers must have created a strain of Iago's green-eyed envy among mainstream media folks, which may be why they've been so quick to pounce Twitter's recent hiccup.The BBC headline almost gleefully announced "Twitter Hype Punctured By Study" and explained:


Just 10% of Twitter users generate more than 90% of the content, a Harvard study of 300,000 users found.

I guess Twitter is almost as big a failure as Wikipedia, where approximately 75,000 people contribute content -- far less than 10% (in fact, just over 1%) of the site's 65 million monthly unique visitors.

Of course, reality isn't stopping traditionalists from piling on:


Twitter is battling scalability problems, churn in its user community, formidable competition and no revenue base. While Twitter clearly needs to monetize, the question is, has it waited too long?
Even new-media pundit John Battelle writes, "Twitter, which made the cover of Time magazine last week, is on the other, less happy side of a traditional hype cycle."

Right. The part of the hype cycle where we eat our young and tear down our heroes.

On the other hand, people seem to have missed a far more important statistic, which reflects the loyalty of Twitter users. According to Neilsen Online, total minutes spent on Twitter rose by 3712% from April 08 to April 09. That's considerably more than the (these numbers are insane) 1382% annual growth Twitter registered in March. In other words, even though growth in unique visitors flattened to just under 1.5% in May, the number of minutes spent on Twitter is still growing like crazy. Which belies the idea that people are abandoning Twitter in droves.

For every person who abandons Twitter, someone else is using it more often by several orders of magnitude.

Also like Wikipedia, Twitter isn't perfect. But it's on target more often than not. Twitter users were taken to task for fomenting panic over the Swine Flu, but as it turns out, today the World Health Organization has had to declare H1N1 a pandemic after all.

Top trending topics on Twitter have also come under attack for being frivolous, but that can happen to the best of us on a slow news day (as your local TV news producer can attest to with their umpteenth cat-rescued-from-tree feature).

That said, I'm not so sure it's a bad thing for Twitter to be useless -- at least to journalists and marketers. People tweet about the topics they care about, and if the media moguls don't like it, tough beans. And I wouldn't mind seeing Twitter's growth slow either. One of the reasons that MySpace became useless is that it got so big that the word "friend" became utterly meaningless. But Twitter lets you take care of that pretty easily; you can follow as few or as many people as you like, and just because someone follows you doesn't mean you have to follow them.

Best of all, Twitter is privately-held, and that means it doesn't have to meet anyone's growth expectations. The one thing we've seen from Biz Stone and his brood is that they're responsive to users, but not to outside pressures (such as editorialists begging them to get acquired by Google or Microsoft to feed the maw of media frenzy). That's another thing Twitter shares with Wikipedia, Craigslist, and other privately-held emblems of the social Web: nobody tells them what to do.

So expect to continue seeing Twitter ride the roller coaster of popularity, as well as headlines proclaiming its death -- prematurely, of course.

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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
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Salvatore Salamone, Managing Editor, Network Computing