What the Heck Is Twitter?
It's not a Google killer, and it's not a Facebook killer.
That gets to a more fundamental question: How often does anyone need "real time" information on the Web? Yes, in the first few minutes after a plane has landed in the Hudson, Twitter might be the best place to find news. But its advantage is short-lived. By the time TV helicopters begin circling overhead, Twitter becomes decidedly slower and noisier than other media—now you're much better off going to CNN, where, in addition to a live picture, you'll find comments from authorities, structured interviews with eyewitnesses, and other old-fashioned journalistic information.
Shortly after the Mumbai attacks began, I opened up one Web page to Twitter's #mumbai stream and another to live coverage from the Indian TV news network IBN Live. The TV coverage was fraught with all the problems that usually plague breaking-news reports—spotty, speculative information; contradictory witness statements; and endless repetition. But the Twitter stream was even worse. It was incoherent, telling no narrative—just a continuously updated jumble of facts, pseudo-facts, unfounded assertions, opinions, rants, condolences, and, most of all, repetition of information that I'd heard on TV minutes before. Even Google surpassed Twitter: Very quickly, the search engine began to index news stories, live blogs, and the Wikipedia page for the attack. Searching for "Mumbai" in Google gave you an in-depth, though still timely, picture of what was going on. This happens for every news event; it is simply not true, as Borthwick asserts, that there was nothing on Google about Flight 1549 on the day of the accident. * Google had a coherent story within hours; Twitter had a messy story within minutes. News junkies love the messy, fast story, but lots of us aren't news junkies. Lots of us are OK waiting an hour for coherence.
So if Twitter is not a threat to Google, is it a threat to Facebook? That case is more straightforward. As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote this week, one of the social-networking site's main goals is to let people "share immediate experiences with one another: a thought, a status, a photo, a note, a feeling." But Twitter is a faster, purer, less rule-bound way to share all that stuff. With Twitter, you just sign up and type—you don't need to build a profile or worry about whom to friend and reject. (By default, Twitter lets anyone follow your updates; on Facebook, generally two people must agree that they're friends before they can share notes.) And Twitter is fast, displaying what people in your network are up to as soon as they press send. Facebook, until now, has been a bit slower—the site shows you new updates from your friends only every few minutes or so, not instantly.
In a sign that it recognizes the appeal of Twitter, Facebook announced that it will soon change its home page to allow for immediate updates. You'll be able to see what your friends are doing right now, just as you can on Twitter. It's a good move, but probably not revolutionary. Again, I think people overestimate the appeal of "real time" data. There are some instances in which real-time interactions will improve Facebook—when all of your friends are watching the State of the Union address, for example, you might want to watch everyone's status update change as the speech progresses. But will we be much more satisfied to get our friends' status updates immediately rather than have to wait 10 minutes? Some people may be overjoyed; most likely won't notice the difference.
It wasn't too long ago that Twitter was the butt of Silicon Valley jokes. It makes no money, and until recently its chief contribution to the culture was its much-displayed service-outage logo, the "fail whale." Twitter is growing extremely quickly—traffic leaped by more than 700 percent in 2008—and lately it has captured the attention of just about everyone in politics and the media. But despite its growth, it's still a niche product: Twitter.com gets about 6 million American visitors a month, according to traffic-monitoring firms. Facebook beats it by a factor of 10 and Google by a factor 20; even the Huffington Post bests Twitter.
That's not to say Twitter doesn't have a great future ahead of it. As more people join it and as we get better tools to analyze the cacophony of conversations taking place there, we'll find it increasingly useful when news breaks or when we need instant feedback from our friends. What's unclear now is how such a service will make any money—and how it can transform itself in order for that to happen. It's possible that Twitter could do very well—but probably not as a social network, and probably not as a search engine.
Correction, March 9, 2009: This piece incorrectly referred to an "attack" on US Airways Flight 1549. The plane was forced to make a water landing when it struck a flock of geese. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.