It’s 9 p.m. last Wednesday, and Evan Williams has just received an e-mail from a reporter. So, naturally, the co-founder of Obvious Corp. lets his friends know.
“Answering yet another journalist’s urgent queries about Twitter,” Williams posted on the site for the trendy new service. “I think we need a FAQ.”
Indeed. Launched last July by Williams and a handful of partners, Twitter has garnered impressive attention in recent weeks. Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post have run stories about the real-time messaging offering, and Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards uses Twitter to deliver campaign updates to his supporters.
The San Francisco-based startup hasn’t released the number of Twitter users, but Williams said the active user base has doubled “the last couple months in a row.” Williams’ post, like every Twitter message, is meant to answer a simple question: What are you doing? Users can send messages from PCs or mobile devices, micro-blogging as they keep tabs on their friends and other Twitter members. While mobile-generated messages don’t represent the bulk of Twitter’s traffic, they “are significant,” Williams said.
The same, but different
The service is similar to Dodgeball, a popular social networking service that encourages users in about two dozen U.S. cities to post their whereabouts via a text message. Dodgeball sends messages to users whose friends are nearby-in a bar down the street, for instance-and connects users who have a Dodgeball friend in common.
Unlike Dodgeball, though, Twitter is more about building virtual communities and creating online relationships than it is about facilitating meet-ups in the real world. So while GPS-enabled “find a friend” applications are finding an audience with young mobile users, such location-based social networking offerings don’t really pose a threat to Twitter, according to Williams.
“Connecting face-to-face is definitely not the focus of Twitter. It’s neat when it enables that, but we think the primary draw is the ability to feel connected in real time when face-to-face meetings aren’t possible,” Williams said via e-mail. “It’s about sharing thoughts, ideas, and what you’re doing. When I get a Twitter from my friend Maggie that says . “I’m in labor. Do something,” well, that’s not really something you can automate (especially the making-it-funny part).”
Twitter messages are limited to 140 characters, and most are fairly banal. Recent updates include “Trying to stay awake in my last class of the week,” “Listening to the new Nine Inch Nails album” and “getting off work in 10 minutes. . woo hoo.” But companies are beginning to use the service as a marketing tool, posting messages that include links to increase traffic to their Web sites. And the lack of compelling messages isn’t hindering uptake: one blogger reported receiving 3,000 “Tweets” at the recent South By Southwest music and entertainment show in Austin, Texas, six times more “Dodgeballs” she received at last year’s show.
Such traffic can mean big money for carriers, of course, and some users have complained about messaging charges of $60 or more. But because operators don’t share basic SMS revenues with third parties, Obvious Corp. has yet to get a taste. In fact, Twitter is far more concerned about growing its subscriber base than it is about making money, Williams said.
“We believe once Twitter is very large, there will be numerous opportunities to generate revenue, but they’re all more interesting at a larger scale,” he explained. “Also, like anything new, it will take some experimentation to find out what the best model is, so we’re not really prepared to say just yet.”
Whether Williams and his partners can move Twitter to that “larger scale” is unclear, of course. Dodgeball drew nationwide attention when it was bought by Google Inc. two years ago, but the service seems to have fallen out of favor among tech-savvy hipsters. Williams said Twitter may eventually incorporate GPS functionality and other features, although the company is currently focused on simplifying the end user experience and improving its wireless Web site.
But to attract mass-market users, the company may have to provide a compelling response to a recent post from “Freepath.” The Twitter user told other members he was simply “Trying to figure out why anyone would want to know what I’m doing.”