back to the Eurescom home page



mess@ge home

Table of contents
of the current issue

Selected Highlights
The Internet of
- Connec-
ting the real world
with the digital


tion - European
push for M2M


Interview with
Anthony Belpaire
from Alcatel-

ness meets
multicasting -
European re-
search project


Creating testbeds
for sensor network
applications - The
European project


Twitter - Between nuisance and killer application

Milon Gupta

No Internet application has divided users as much as Twitter. Some regard the micro-blogging service as the biggest waste of time ever invented while others embrace it as a central social networking tool of high societal impact. Both sides are probably right. 

Twitter has been called the “SMS of the Internet” because every text-based post, called Tweet, has a limit of 140 characters, like SMS. In fact, Tweets can be sent and received via SMS. The big difference, however, is that you normally exchange SMSs only with people you know, while at Twitter anybody can receive anybody’s Tweets. The other significant difference is what is communicated. The question above the text entry field on the Twitter home page is “What are you doing?”. And especially in the early days of Twitter people did just that – tweet what they or their cat or dog were just doing at that moment. 

Banalities from everyday life

So far, humans have not exactly missed the information that Kim in Ohio is bringing the kids to school while John in Manchester is cooking some delicious spaghetti and Michelle’s cat in Montreal is playing with a ball of wool. Before Twitter started in 2006, any marketing manager suggesting that banalities from the lives of normal citizens would arouse the interest of millions of people would have been declared insane. Obviously, Twitter has satisfied a latent need for spontaneous self-expression and voyeurism which other Internet services had not satisfied. 

One of the drivers of Twitter is that people can follow some celebrities by subscribing to their Tweets. Not surprisingly, the top three ranks in the statistics of Twitter followers are occupied by celebrities from the entertainment sector: 1. Ashton Kutcher, actor – 2,76 million followers, 2. Ellen DeGeneres, TV star – 2,46 million followers, 3. Britney Spears, singer – 2,41 million followers; while the highly popular US president Barack Obama is ranked seventh with 1,75 million followers (source:, 16 July 2009). 

Event-driven popularity

What gave Twitter a real push from the start were events which allowed micro-bloggers to give short live reports faster and more widespread than with any other means. Events like the 2007 South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and the Macworld 2008 boosted the interest in Twitter, causing considerable downtime (2% in 2007) – Twitter’s “fail whale” error message has become famous. 

Twittered revolution

In 2009, Twitter further climbed the ladder of importance by becoming a tool for protesters and revolutionaries, who made use of its speed and wide-spread impact. On 7 April 2009, anti-communist protesters stormed the parliamentary building in Chisinau, the capital of Moldavia, accusing the government of fraud. Twitter was used to mobilise protesters, using the hashtag #pman. 

In June 2009, following allegations of fraud in the Iranian presidential election, protesters used Twitter as a rallying tool and as a method of communication with the outside world after the Iranian government blocked several other modes of communication (hashtag: #iranelection). 

Marketing tool

Not surprisingly, Twitter has also become quite popular as a marketing tool. Multilevel marketers, self-declared social media gurus, and many other marketeers use Twitter as another distribution channel for their products or services. 

The interesting question for marketing experts is who is using Twitter. According to a recent study by Sysomos, there are more women on Twitter (53%) than men (47%). Another result is that two thirds of Twitter users are under the age of 25, with 31% in the age group 15-19. Contradictory to this is another recent study, by Morgan Stanley, which claims that “teenagers do not twitter”. This result, however, is not based on a quantitative survey but on the observations and insights of Matthew Robson, a 15-year old intern at Morgan Stanley. 

Another interesting aspect is the active or passive usage of Twitter. A study by Harvard University published in June 2009 discovered that 10% of users created over 90% of Twitter's content. The study was based on a survey among 300,542 users. 

Twitter business model

Despite its huge popularity, Twitter is still looking for a viable business model. Twitter Inc. was founded in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams in San Francisco, California. Since then the main source of finance has been venture capital – according to Internet source over 57 million dollars. 

How Twitter is making money at the moment is not publicly know, but so far it seems that Twitter Inc. has not yet found a viable business model. According to a Reuters report from May 2009, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said that Twitter would not look for revenues from advertising but rather offer commercial add-on tools for business users. Although the business model does not seem to be clear, Twitter already turned down a 500 million buying offer by Facebook in 2008. 

Time will tell if Twitter is just a fad or if it will become an established communication service in the already large arsenal of social media applications. 

If you want to stay up-to-date on this and other ICT trends, please follow us on Twitter at (handle: @Eurescom).

Please send us your comments on this article.