Twitter - The Sound of “Tweet” Success
Twitter co-founders Jack Dorsey, top, and Biz Stone pose on the roof of their San Francisco offices.

USA Today has a great article on the Twitter phenomenon. Micro-blogging at its finest, it is indeed much more than that.

Twitter has become so popular, so fast, that keeping up with its fast-growing user base is a real issue. So many people now use Twitter to update friends that the system often crashes.

Twitter - The Sound of “Tweet” Success

“What are you doing?”

That question is the rocket fuel for Twitter — a hot social-network service that lets you tell people what you are up to at any given moment of the day — via cellphone, instant messenger, or the Web. Never heard of it, you say?

“What are you doing?” is the question Twitter asks “Twitterers” to answer in a simple text message as they connect with friends, co-workers or the wider world. Twitterers “tweet” about everything from what they had for lunch to how much they enjoyed their latest Netflix DVD. If that sounds silly and incredibly narrow at first, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

“When people hear about Twitter, their immediate reaction is that it’s the simplest and stupidest idea in the world,” says co-founder Biz Stone.

“They do not want to know that their brother is eating a hot dog right now,” he says. “But then they discover that their friends are on it. And so are the L.A. Fire Department, NASA and JetBlue. Then they get it.”

Boy, do they.

Twitter has become so popular, so fast, that keeping up with its fast-growing user base is a real issue. So many people now use Twitter to update friends that the system often crashes.

That could be about to change. Twitter executives are working feverishly to solve the problem through a new investment ($15 million, according to several tech blogs) from Spark Capital and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and putting off expansion plans (i.e., making money) until the network issues are resolved.

“Twitter took off really quickly, and honestly, we were surprised and had to play a lot of catch-up,” says Stone. “Now we’re focusing 100% on reliability.”

Twitter no longer exists just for friends to tell friends that they’re on their way to the gym or out to eat. It’s become a kind of hypergrapevine news resource — a way of instant messaging your circle of friends about your interests (“Did you hear what Obama said today?”) or consumer rants and raves (“The customer service at rocks!”).

The service is even credited with breaking news about fires and other natural disasters.

Twitterers, as they call themselves, post their updates at or by using text- or instant-message tools.

A cottage industry of websites — including TweetScan, FriendFeed and Summize (which Twitter recently acquired and renamed Twitter Search) — have popped up to service the Twitterers and their tweets, by making it easier to search through the chatter for specific topics or people.

Tweets of gold

Savvy businesses see gold in the information: Consumers are talking about them on Twitter, and they get to respond more quickly than ever.

“In the past, companies would hire a market research firm to understand their audience,” says Mike Hudack, CEO of, a New York-based video website.

“Now we use Twitter to get the fastest, most honest research any company ever heard — the good, bad and ugly — and it doesn’t cost a cent,” he says.

With Twitter, Hudack can monitor every mention of and see exactly what people are saying. He can drop notes about things the company is thinking of doing and get instant feedback about whether they’re worth pursuing.

To get started on Twitter, you begin by searching to see who else is using the service and ask permission to “follow” their postings. Twitter subscriber Joe Rogel — known as Granola Joe on Twitter — says the service is a great way to reach those who might otherwise be inaccessible.

Blip and other young companies such as shoe retailer are on Twitter. So are food retailer Whole Foods and cable company Comcast, whose customer service issues — especially online — are legendary.

Frank Eliason, a customer service manager for Comcast, spends his day communicating with Twitterers about the company — hoping to resolve issues. Comcast isn’t on Twitter to turn around the firm’s customer service perception issues but simply to “build better relationships with our customers,” he says.

Whole Foods, which started using Twitter in June, just wants to hear what people are saying about the company.

“It’s amazing how many people say, ‘I’m off to Whole Foods for lunch,’ ” says Slayton Carter, Whole Foods’ online community development coordinator.

Getting beyond the tech crowd

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh uses Twitter to make himself available to the public. He says he receives up to 200 tweets daily.

“For people who follow us on Twitter, it gives them more depth into what we’re like, and my own personality,” he says.

Zappos tested a new site,, recently on Twitter, “and we were able to make some improvements based on the comments,” says Hsieh.

When Twitter co-founders Stone, Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams began working on their new Web idea, Dorsey suggested a site that emulated the “status” feature of instant-messaging services, which lets people know whether you’re online. Twitter also adopted the short character limit of text messages and IMs.

As Twitter users know, if you can’t say it in 140 characters or less, your idea won’t get out there.

And since Twitter combines use of the Web, IMs and text messaging, measuring the site’s popularity is tough. The privately held company does not disclose numbers.

Traditional online measurement firms report only Web usage, which is only half of the equation because so much of Twitter usage is via mobile phones. Still, Web measurement firm Compete says Twitter’s audience grew to 2 million users in May from 200,000 in May 2007.

Not everyone loves Twitter. Phil Leigh, an analyst for Inside Digital Media, says he goes on the site with an open mind and just doesn’t get it.

“That some guy saw Wall-E and thought it was a great movie is wonderful, but it’s just not that interesting to me. If somebody has something important to say, they can say it in an e-mail.”

Allen Weiner, an analyst at Gartner, says that Twitter’s audience right now is limited to the “cognoscenti,” but that it’s a testament to Twitter’s growing popularity that so many third-party applications (such as Summize and FriendFeed) have sprung up to feed on its success.

Many news and media outlets (from cable giant CNN to tech blogs such as Techcrunch) have responded to the popularity of Twitter by offering instant news updates to share with friends. This adds to Twitter’s growing stature, says Weiner.

Twitter’s problem is keeping its users happy. So many people go on it that at times — often, in fact — the system crashes, and Twitter is unusable.

Stone and Dorsey say the problem is that Twitter became more popular than they ever envisioned and that the system they created wasn’t built for masses. An influx of engineers is working to rebuild it, and they say the situation should be resolved within the year.

Bijan Sabet, a general partner at Spark Capital, says the cash infusion should help solve the problem. But Weiner doesn’t think it will go far enough. “I’d be stunned if by the end of the year, somebody doesn’t buy Twitter,” says Weiner. “They need the kind of global infrastructure a big company could provide that would make it 100% reliable.”

A flock of chirps

Stone says the secret of Twitter’s success is realizing that folks don’t want to use the Web for private conversations but public ones. Nearly 90% of Twitter users make their updates public, so everyone can read them.

“It encourages other people to see what they’re saying,” says Stone. “People aren’t doing one-to-one e-mail or instant messages anymore. Just look at comments on MySpace and blogs. They’re communicating with one another in an open way.”

Just like birds.

In choosing a name for the service, Stone suggested Twitter, and the co-founders jumped for it. “It’s what birds do when they converge,” says Stone. “The sound they make is technically defined as a trivial chirp. How perfect … hear a trivial chirp on your phone, look down and it’s your friend. During events, you can move as one with your friends, just like birds, because you all know what everyone is up to.”

And if the bird analogy doesn’t persuade you to use Twitter, we’ll leave the last word to Dorsey: “Is there anyone you care about? Twitter is about keeping in touch and making the world smaller.”

So … what are you doing right now?

Via USA Today