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What Twitter brings to the party

While Twitter hasn't caught on with mainstream Web users, it's all the rage in the digerati echo chamber. Is that unbridled enthusiasm justified?

To this point, I have avoided getting into the conversations weighing the value and future of Twitter, FriendFeed, and the latest generation of community communications services. They clearly represent an evolution of instant messaging and the triumph of the feed.

Twitter is an early adopter service (see Kara Swisher's post) and hasn't yet caught on with mainstream Web users. The Twitter population is a rounding error compared with Web mail or Yahoo Messenger, AIM, MSN Messenger.

But Twitter adds a new dimension to instant messaging beyond its SMS-like 140-character constraint with the concepts of following and followers, enabling a kind of broadcast model.

In July 2007, Dave Winer described Twitter as "a network of users, with one kind of relationship: following." He also called it a micro-blogging system with a "relatively open identity system."

Steve Gillmor describes Twitter as creating a social graph of who you follow that intersects with the social graph of who follows you.

"The asynchronous nature of follows creates both a star system and an equal opportunity for anyone to get involved," Gillmor said. "You can build your own sphere of influence. You can create a microcommunity that links up with other microcommunities that forms an expanding circle of influence. If I say something and Scoble replies, his complete orbit doesn't follow but they see we are talking [Tweeting], so I get a bunch more follows. The net result is my sphere is increased by the addition of more strong followers." The APIs have made Twitter more extensible and viral, such as flowing Twitter into Facebook status pages or FriendFeed.

Winer just posted some data, taking into account the number of followers and number of posts, and coming up with an indicator of what he dubbed the amount of noise or "spew" issued by a person using the Twitter transport.

It's not exactly a measure of influence (more an indicator of overall reach), but it can be a huge number. In Winer's calculation, Robert Scoble has the most followers on Twitter, with 21,310, and 10,713 Tweets, which multiplied together yields 228,294,030 potential impressions. (It would be less given the ramp up in followers and Tweets but still a big number.)

In this context, Twitter is a highly efficient way to share, discover, and market ideas. My journalist/blogger friends have taken to Twitter broadcasts of their posts, and on occasion I have Twittered live events, broadcasting my notes and observations to followers, who receive it in real time or for later consumption. You can also "Track" keywords to follow people or concepts without signing up to follow them. "It creates a public/private scenario where discoverability and special social interactions can happen," Gillmor said.

Where is Twitter heading? First it has to get a more stable infrastructure. The company is taking on additional funding of $15 million to $20 million which should help in the scaling up department. With the new funding, Twitter will likely start adding new features. The danger is in messing with the simplicity of the service, but it seems inevitable if you look at how instant-messaging applications evolved. Below is a look at where Twitter came from and where it might end up in the next year or so.

Jeff Clavier (an investor in Seesmic which recently acquired the Twitter app Twhirl) views Twitter as a "quick return on the attention investment":

This micro-chunking of the information - the arbitrary limitation to a few tens or hundreds of characters in a world of Gigabit networks - drops the time commitment barrier to a couple of minutes tops. Most people can't commit large chunks of time to read/write/comment on blogs, but everyone has a couple minutes to spare a few times a day... not too far away from a phone or a computer. Offering broad access on the web, on the phone, one message at a time or through applications, in real time (even if you are not pushing it like Scoble does) or in batch mode, allows time (and CPA ?) challenged users to get a quick return on the attention investment they choose to make at any point during the day.

Twitter adds to the overflow of information, but if you find the right people to follow, or lead, it does offer a good ROI for the time spent consuming 140 characters at a time.