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Hot on the Web

Is Twitter the next ICQ?

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 1, 2009
(Issue 2718, Macintosh Rumors)

If you're tech-savvy enough to be reading ComputorEdge, then you've most likely heard of – the current hot topic in tech media. In early April, and actor Ashton Kutcher held a contest to see who could get to 1 million Twitter followers first. The actor won.

It seems everyone is on Twitter – you can twit or send tweets. Little applets let you put your Twitter updates in your MySpace or Facebook or blog pages.

All of which is very impressive, as is the growth in the number of people with Twitter accounts.

But what does it mean?

Not much if some compelling reason to use Twitter doesn't emerge.

What it is

All Twitter is is a broadcast of your "status" – like what MySpace and Facebook already offer on your profile, but untethered to a specific site.

You type in what you're doing – or whatever else you want to share with your subscribers: a news headline, a new YouTube video – and then they are notified based on their own preferences (e-mail or text to their cell or simply an update the next time they log in to

It's sort of a centralized version of texting on your cell phone or instant messaging on your PC.

But I still have to ask: So what?

Where's the beef?

Look at the example of instant messaging. Five years ago, IM was hot hot hot. It seemed like everyone was jumping on the IM bandwagon – AOL had AIM, Yahoo had its own, so did Netscape and Microsoft – and the big buzz was whether Google was really going to issue its own IM client. And a small company named ICQ was among the IM leaders simply by virtue of being among the first to have an IM client and protocol.

The fact that none of the above clients were compatible with one another even had members of Congress threatening to pass laws compelling interoperability – the fear being that if we weren't all able to chat with one another on our PCs that ... well, I'm not really sure what the fear was.

Whatever it was, it didn't come to pass, because instant messaging is utterly passé. Sure, there are still people IMing each other. Heck, for that matter, some people still write letters to each other. In longhand. And mail them, with stamps and everything.


The reality is that the proliferation of cell phones and the drop in price for text messaging on those phones doomed instant messaging as a ubiquitous (and thus, perhaps, massively profitable) means of communication. Nobody IMs anymore because instant messaging isn't nearly as universal as texting. Let's face it: No matter how sleek your laptop, it's a heck of a lot more cumbersome than a cell phone.

The MySpace model?

And now Twitter is all the rage – we even had a seminar on using Twitter at my place of employment recently. The woman who led it covered all the bases and gave a very nice, comprehensive presentation on how to use Twitter to strengthen our business – but at the conclusion, I was left wondering if we weren't putting the cart before the horse. By a couple miles.

More recently even than IM, was the hot tech app. Designed to make it easy for bands to share their music and tour schedules (and thus build up fan bases independently of the record labels), MySpace exploded in popularity until just a couple years ago it was the most popular destination Web site (trailing only Google and Yahoo in total visitors). Everybody had a MySpace page.

And you know what? MySpace is still a hugely popular site – but it no longer has the all-valuable cachet of the Next Big Thing. took that away, and – until Twitter sprung on the scene – was the media darling of the Internet.

Long-term success

So the point of all this meandering is to say that I wouldn't wager too heavily on Twitter's long-term financial potential. Success is fleeting, and never more so than in the tech world.

Particularly when the value of your brand isn't immediately evident.

MySpace's basic design remains geared toward helping bands build a following. MySpace may not be the dominating one-size-fits-all social network it once was, but it remains a robust online community due to its strength at connecting musicians to fans.

Facebook may be the more dominant generic social network now, due to the fact that it is designed to help friends and family connect and stay in touch. But it's not quite as good at helping bands promote themselves – so MySpace still has that niche.

But with its online games, polls and other entertainment, Facebook is probably the more fun way to spend an evening.

So both sites could end up being here to stay indefinitely.

But what does Twitter offer? A way to let your friends know what you're doing? To share a link to another Web site?

You can do all those things with your friends on MySpace and Facebook already.

There just doesn't seem anything particularly unique or compelling about Twitter. It's interesting (sort of), it's got the media buzz going.

But will it last?

As we've seen with IM, and with Linux before that (remember when Linux was going to replace Windows as the operating system of choice on PCs?) and MySpace after (and tons of other examples, from WinAmp to BeOS), the media is a fickle mistress.

With a particularly short attention span.