Twitter: The Napster of Messaging

We recently created a Twitter account for this blog.

Someone quickly reminded me of a post I made about Twitter not too long ago.  When I posted that, a friend who had been on Twitter for some time  told me that I just didn’t “get” Twitter.

Maybe I’m just getting older and I’m not as quick to jump onto the new new thing. But, I’ve worked in technology for over 20 years, so I certainly “get” most new technologies and their implications.

As I’ve started to use Twitter – and maybe there’s a frame of reference lesson buried in here somewhere — I’ve come to a realization: Twitter is the new Napster.

Huh? What do I mean?

I hope all of you remember Napster — not the new “legit” Napster, but the original Napster that made “file sharing” a household word.

What made Napster so popular was that it did one thing, and one thing only, but it was ruthlessly efficient at what it did.

Napster took all the complexity out of sharing files between individuals and groups. You didn’t need to know anything about file systems, directories, mount points, or the locations of anything. You simply found files that matched your criteria and downloaded.

If you wanted to share your files, it was equally simple. You just made your files available for uploading. And once you did that, they were available for anyone to access. The “network effect” of large numbers of people sharing files only helped increase the value of Napster to it’s users.

There were drawbacks to Napster. You didn’t actually know that the file you were downloading was actually the the file that was listed in the UI. For example — and not that this was something I did but — if you were downloading an MP3 file called “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2, it might actually be another song that someone intentionally misnamed.

There were other short comings, but people were willing to live with those shortcomings because the advantages — wide selection of files and singular focus — made it easy to use.

I’ve come to realize that Twitter is popular for exactly the same reasons that Napster was popular. It does one thing, and it does it with ruthless efficiency, and the “network effect” of increased users adds to that value. I had wondered why Twitter was so popular, besides being the new new thing.

I used to subscribe to Guy Kawasaki’s email list many years ago. There were thousands of people on the list who got Guys thoughts etc. every week. Now on Twitter, Guy has 50000+ followers, follows over 50000 people (I have  no idea how), and has over 17000 tweets. These are at least an order of magnitude bigger than what Guy did on his email list.

The big difference: With the email list, everyone on the list was a subscriber and Guy was the publisher. In Twitter, everyone who follows Guy is also a publisher. Guy’s 50,000+ followers have in total probably 5,000,000 followers themselves.

Thus velocity that tweets can flow through Twitter, rebroadcast across followers means information can flow quicker and more efficiently than other communication formats like email or broadcast mailing lists etc.

And as anyone who has used Twitter knows, it still rather rough around the edges. It’s impossible to actually follow 50,000 people. In fact, following anything more than a few dozen active Twitter users is impossible without good 3rd party interfaces. But the efficiency and singularity of purpose make it attractive to a lot of people.

Now all of this may be self evident to a lot of you. If it is, then maybe my friend was right, and I didn’t “get” Twitter until now.

The future of Twitter is still not certain. Despite the popularity, they still don’t have a revenue model. And while the popularity and buzz is there now, it will eventually peak and level off and then the next new thing will come along and people will adopt that. It’s inevitable. Hopefully the new PM at Twitter, the executive team and the investors figure out how to monetize the service before then. Or if  not, sell it for enough money to someone, who thinks that they can do that.