Twitter Goes Mainstream

by traveldragon on October 28, 2008


Twitter Goes Mainstream – WSJ.com

One of the hottest technologies in Silicon Valley is also one of the simplest.

The online service from Web start-up Twitter Inc. prompts users to do one thing: answer the question, “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less. People type these brief updates, known as “tweets,” into Twitter’s site or send them to Twitter as text messages. Friends and colleagues can then check the site to monitor each other’s updates.

When the service first appeared a couple of years ago, its appeal seemed largely limited to narcissists who wanted to let everybody know what they were doing in real time. But, like blogs and social-networking sites, Twitter is starting to cross into the mainstream, as a wide range of people find interesting uses for the brief notes.

Doctors are using Twitter to update patients about office hours. Local groups such as the Los Angeles Fire Department are using it to share details about service calls with interested residents, occasionally with graphic descriptions of the victims’ conditions. And dozens of major companies, like computer maker Dell Inc., use Twitter to share deals and product news with people who sign up for the service.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur, says the company is encouraged that businesses are starting to take to the service. “Looking at the value commercial entities are getting out of Twitter could help us build a sustainable company,” he says, noting that Twitter might charge for premium services in the future.
All Atwitter

Twitter’s user base is still relatively small, but it’s growing very fast. The company says the number of active users rose sevenfold in the past year. Twitter wouldn’t disclose the total number of users, but for a rough idea of the service’s scope, consider this: Twitter.com had more than a million unique visitors from the U.S. in August 2008, up from just 282,000 in August 2007, according to research firm comScore Inc. Those numbers are likely to underestimate overall usage, much of which happens on mobile phones.

Part of what lures people to the service is ease of use. Users sign up for an account on Twitter.com by creating a user name. Then they can start posting updates through the Web or via text message. The updates appear on Twitter.com or other sites that users connect to their Twitter accounts, such as social-network pages. Users can keep their entries public or visible only to people whom they’ve approved to see them, such as family or friends.
[Twitter Goes Mainstream] Getty Images

Co-founders Jack Dorsey (left) and Biz Stone

To get the most out of the service, users not only can post updates but can choose to follow others’ Twitter entries as well. To do so, a user — call him Bob — can sign up to follow another user — Mary — by going to her account page and clicking a “follow” button. Then Mary’s updates will appear on Bob’s home screen when he logs into the service, along with updates from the other feeds that Bob chooses to follow. Bob can also see the updates on his cellphone, using Twitter’s mobile Web page or a third-party service.

Twitter can be useful for keeping up with friends, but businesses are also finding ways to employ it. Daniel Rothamel, a real-estate agent from Palmyra, Va., follows feeds from more than 1,000 people, including neighbors and fellow real-estate professionals. The 27-year-old searches the site for people who indicate that they are seeking real-estate help in his area; once he used the service to exchange messages with a potential customer, who later changed his plans.

Mr. Rothamel also uses the site regularly as an instant advice hotline. He recently used the service to pose a question about whether a client could qualify for a particular type of mortgage for a property where the well hadn’t received a safety test. A fellow Twitter user, a mortgage broker in Denver whose updates Mr. Rothamel had been following, quickly responded, “Yes.” The client got the mortgage and closed on the house a week later.

Mr. Rothamel doesn’t just seek out professional advice, though. He once used the service to help identity some flowers growing in his front yard. He snapped a photo of them, uploaded the image to a Web site, posted a link to the site through Twitter and asked for help. Someone quickly responded, warning him not to pull the flowers up — they were daylilies and would bloom soon enough.
Part of the Crowd

Professionals such as Mr. Rothamel often start using Twitter during conferences, where there is a steady stream of news to share and people are eager to know what’s going on around them. Mr. Stone, the Twitter co-founder, notes that the service typically gains a bunch of new users around big and small events, everything from political debates and concerts to hurricanes. As a result, Twitter is looking at ways to allow people to indicate that they are attending a particular event, so they can more easily share updates with others who are there.

Other users are flocking to Twitter as an easy self-publishing and promotional tool. People are using it to build up their professional reputation by sharing updates about their work in a less time-intensive way than starting a blog. Andrew Flusche, an attorney in Fredericksburg, Va., recently used Twitter to promote a webinar he was holding on trademark registration. The session got 15 attendees, compared with seven for a subsequent seminar he didn’t promote on the service.

Mr. Flusche, 26, has also found the service handy for referring cases to experts in other areas, as well as keeping up with professional contacts he doesn’t see often. “You get interesting glimpses of them,” he says. “It’s a different way to network with people and get to know them.”

Still, using Twitter can be frustrating if others aren’t playing along. Earlier this year, Oliver Bogler, an associate professor in the department of neurosurgery at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, tried to use Twitter to communicate with his lab. He felt it would be handy for sharing updates about meetings or interesting research.

But his team didn’t take to the service and never really began checking it. He suspects they didn’t spend enough time at their desks to check Twitter online, and they failed to activate the service on their mobile phones.

Dr. Bogler also found the performance of the service a bit finicky; sometimes it took a while for updates to post. “I am not sure Twitter is ready for the professional scene yet,” he says. “The barriers to entry are enormous.”

Twitter’s Mr. Stone says the company “has made great advances in reliability and performance” in recent months and will continue to improve. “We still have work to do,” he says.

Twitter is already spreading quickly at several companies, however. Online shoe retailer Zappos.com Inc., of Henderson, Nev., has more than 450 employees using the service to communicate with one another on topics ranging from politics to marketing plans. Zappos Chief Executive Tony Hsieh kicked off the trend by launching his own personal Twitter account, and continues to blast out updates about his activities to his more than 14,000 followers.

To help employees get the hang of the service, Zappos has begun offering classes. They range from teaching basics like how to follow a friend’s updates to “advanced” topics like using third-party services for fancier tasks, such as adding images to one’s Twitter stream.

Some companies are using the service as a way to reach out to customers. Frank Eliason, director of digital care for Comcast Corp., often resolves dozens of customer-service issues a day over Twitter. Several months ago, employees of the cable operator started mining public Twitter accounts to detect issues people were having with their service, from faulty DVRs to troubled Internet connections.

The Philadelphia-based cable giant now has a seven-person team that works to help resolve those issues over Twitter or by looking up customers’ contact information and calling them at home. “Now we can search for what people are saying [about us] and utilize it,” says Mr. Eliason.
—Ms. Vascellaro is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal’s San Francisco bureau.

Write to Jessica E. Vascellaro at jessica.vascellaro@wsj.com

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