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Let's not all be so atwitter over Twitter

For Silicon Valley's chattering classes, Twitter, the microblogging company, has emerged as something big — the next Google, the next Facebook, or maybe some unbeatable combination of the two.

Twitter is a social network for sending short messages to friends over cell phones and the Internet. By collecting millions of people's immediate thoughts, Twitter is building the Web's best database of "real time" information, these people argue. And that collection might be very valuable — when people want to know what's going on in the world right now, they'll increasingly check Twitter, not Google.

Some of the great expectations surrounding Twitter can be discounted as classic Silicon Valley hype; in an otherwise hopeless time, it stands as one of the few things the tech world is still optimistic about. Twitter is also extremely simple — so simple that it's often tempting to describe it as something more than it is. Perhaps that's why, in trying to capture Twitter's potential, boosters compare it to known successes — search engines and social networks. The trouble is, neither comparison makes much sense.

Let's start with the Twitter-beats-Google theory. For proponents, two recent events stand out: last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York. Both times, people on the scene began Twittering what they were seeing and hearing, and Twitter's search engine became one of the first places on the Web to carry the news. Indeed, the first picture of Flight 1549 in the water came via Twitter: Janis Krums, a businessman who was on a nearby ferry, snapped a shot and posted it along with a note, "There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy."

Todd Chaffee, a Twitter backer, told that Twitter might even be able to answer personalized search queries — stuff that Google doesn't know about.

"You put a question out to the global mind, and it comes back," he said. "Millions of people are contributing to the knowledge base. The engine is alive. You get feedback in real time from people, not just documents."

But compared with everything we look for online, personalized, just-in-time searches are in the minority. The key point: For most searches, information that's merely timely, rather than immediate, is good enough.

That gets to a more fundamental question: How often does anyone need "real time" information on the Web? Yes, in the first few minutes after a plane has landed in the Hudson, Twitter might be the best place to find news. But its advantage is short-lived. By the time TV helicopters begin circling overhead, Twitter becomes decidedly slower and noisier than other media — now you're much better off going to CNN, where, in addition to a live picture, you'll find comments from authorities, structured interviews with eyewitnesses, and other old-fashioned journalistic information.

Shortly after the Mumbai attacks began, I opened up one Web page to Twitter's #mumbai stream and another to live coverage from the Indian TV news network IBN Live. The Twitter stream was incoherent, telling no narrative — just a continuously updated jumble of facts, pseudo-facts, unfounded assertions, opinions, rants, condolences, and, most of all, repetition of information that I'd heard on TV minutes before. Even Google surpassed Twitter: Very quickly, the search engine began to index news stories, live blogs, and the Wikipedia page for the attack. Searching for "Mumbai" in Google gave you an in-depth, though still timely, picture of what was going on.

This happens for every news event; Google had a coherent story within hours; Twitter had a messy story within minutes. News junkies love the messy, fast story, but lots of us aren't news junkies. Lots of us are okay waiting an hour for coherence.

So if Twitter is not a threat to Google, is it a threat to Facebook? That case is more straightforward. As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote this month, one of the social-networking site's main goals is to let people "share immediate experiences with one another: a thought, a status, a photo, a note, a feeling." Twitter is a faster, purer way to share all that stuff. But will we be much more satisfied to get our friends' status updates immediately rather than have to wait 10 minutes?

Twitter is growing extremely quickly — traffic leaped eightfold in 2008 — and lately it has captured the attention of just about everyone in politics and the media. But despite its growth, it's still a niche product: gets about 6 million American visitors a month, according to traffic-monitoring firms. Facebook beats it by a factor of 10 and Google by a factor 20.

As more people join it and as we get better tools to analyze the cacophony of conversations taking place there, we'll find it increasingly useful when news breaks or when we need instant feedback from our friends. What's unclear now is how such a service will make any money — and how it can transform itself in order for that to happen. It's possible that Twitter could do very well — but probably not as a social network, and probably not as a search engine.

Let's not all be so atwitter over Twitter 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 4:30am]
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