What the Heck Is Twitter?
It's not a Google killer, and it's not a Facebook killer.
For you and me, Twitter is a fun way to procrastinate. But for Silicon Valley's chattering classes, the microblogging company has emerged as something much more—the next Google, the next Facebook, or maybe some unbeatable combination of the two. "It's time to start thinking of Twitter as a search engine," TechCrunch's Michael Arrington declared this week, joining a chorus that includes John Battelle, the San Jose Mercury News, and some of Twitter's venture funders. By collecting millions of people's immediate thoughts, Twitter is building the Web's best database of "real time" information, these people argue. And that collection might be very valuable—when people want to know what's going on in the world right now, they'll increasingly check Twitter, not Google.
Some of the great expectations surrounding Twitter can be discounted as classic Silicon Valley hype; in an otherwise hopeless time, it stands as one of the few things the tech world is still optimistic about. Twitter is also extremely simple—so simple that it's often tempting to describe it as something more than it is. Perhaps that's why, in trying to capture Twitter's potential, boosters compare it to known successes—search engines and social networks. The trouble is, neither comparison makes much sense.
Let's start with the Twitter-beats-Google theory. For proponents, two recent events stand out: last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York. Both times, people on the scene began Twittering what they were seeing and hearing, and Twitter's search engine became one of the first places on the Web to carry the news. Indeed, the first picture of Flight 1549 in the water came via Twitter: Janis Krums, a businessman who was on a nearby ferry, snapped a shot and posted it along with a note, "There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy."
In a recent blog post, John Borthwick, one of Twitter's investors, explained the value of such a service. Imagine that you're waiting in line for coffee, and you overhear some people talking about a plane landing on the Hudson. When you go back to your desk, you search Google—and come up with nothing. "The day of the incident there was nothing on the topic to be found on Google," Borthwick writes. "The same holds for any topical issues—lipstick on a pig?—for real-time questions, real-time branding analysis, tracking a new product launch. On pretty much any subject if you want to know what's happening now, search.twitter.com will come up with a superior result set."
Todd Chaffee, another Twitter backer, told AdAge.com that Twitter might even be able to answer personalized search queries—stuff that Google doesn't know about. "You put a question out to the global mind, and it comes back," he said. "Millions of people are contributing to the knowledge base. The engine is alive. You get feedback in real time from people, not just documents." John Battelle describes this scenario: Say you were interested in buying a certain digital camera, the Canon EOS. Instead of going to Google to look for information about the camera, you'd send your query to everyone on Twitter. "Does the Canon EOS take good pics?" If Twitter could build a service that analyzes and sorts through responses in real time, showing you the best few responses on top, "those results could be truly game changing," Battelle writes.
But there are two problems with this idea. First, Twitter's search engine, at the moment, is extremely crude. It sorts results only chronologically, so the best answers are easily swamped by silly ones and people repeating silly ones. Of course, Twitter could improve its search engine. But so could Google. Twitter, remember, is a public database. Everything on Twitter is on the Web and can be analyzed by any other firm—in fact, Twitter's own search engine began as a startup unaffiliated with Twitter. (Twitter bought that company, Summize, last summer.)
Google already maintains many specialized search engines—a blog search engine, a book search engine, a news search engine, a video search engine, a Usenet search engine, and others. If searching the "real-time Web"—as some people describe Twitter—ever became a popular pastime, it would be a trivial matter for Google to start indexing Twitter and then displaying tweets alongside its main results. And if it did this, Google would clearly have the upper hand: Search for "Canon EOS" in Google, and you'd get Web pages and news stories, plus the most recent, relevant tweets. Search for the same thing in Twitter, and you'd get just the tweets. Which would you choose?
True, it's possible to think of scenarios where real-time searches would yield better results than what can be found on Google. If you were visiting Boston and looking for a good place to grab a bite near Harvard, you might be better off asking your Twitter network to recommend a place than looking for something on the Web. Indeed, people do this all the time on Twitter. But compared with everything we look for online, these personalized, just-in-time searches are in the minority. Think of everything you Googled yesterday—how many of those searches required real-time results that were generated by others just because you asked for them? In fact, when you do ask Google for something really peculiar, you often find that someone has already asked that question at Ask Metafilter or Yahoo Answers. Even Battelle's example doesn't really work: Why does anyone need to know what people are saying about the Canon EOS right now? Wouldn't you care how someone reviewed the camera yesterday or last week? Is that information outdated? Of course not—and often, it's much deeper than information you'll find on Twitter. That's the key point: For most searches, information that's merely timely, rather than immediate, is good enough.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.