What factors led to Twitter’s growth?

Interesting question. And Some of the factors I am wondering about are: invitation-driven growth (e.g. via the contact importer), media (lots of news stories), celebrities like Oprah being on there, word of mouth. I am interested in what the relative weights of these and other factors may be in understanding Twitter‘s growth. I then did a survey with my friends both offline and online and here are the results of the survey.

At it’s heart Twitter is a flow – it doesn’t present an unread count of messages, just a list of recent ones, so you don’t have email’s inbox problem – the implicit pressure to turn bold things plain and get that unread number down. Instead, you can dip in and out of it, when you have time, and what you see is notes from people you care about.

Vanity!  The “x” is following you emails are seductive–i.e. “cool, so and so think my life is important.” The shift from status updates about the mundane affairs of daily life (“I just ate lunch”) to link sharing which created a long-term value prop and a more mainstream one. The constraint of 140 characters actually fuels more content production as the procrastination involved in writing for most people is eliminated.

I don’t know numbers but I think they got a big part of their growth out of bloggers embedding their Twitter stream on their blog or just linking to their Twitter account. The “# of followers as a status symbol” created a game dynamic which caused people to promote their Twitter account and promote Twitter as a side effect.

Being able to link to something without it having to give you permission by linking back is what enabled the web to grow. Making following asymmetric is similarly freeing for social relationships – it means you can follow authors or film stars without drowning them in friend requests, and get the same  sense of connection with them that you get from friends.

We each have our own view of the web, our own public that we see and we address. The subtlety is that the public are semi-overlapping – not everyone we can see will hear us, as they don’t necessarily follow us, and they may not dip into the stream in time to catch the evanescent ripples in the flow that our remark started.

Twitter amplifies six-degrees connected-ness with both a low propagation delay and the enforced brevity that makes both writing and reading rapid.

It’s interesting, but the celebrity factor with Twitter is the exact opposite of what it is in the real world. Real world, a celebrity uses it, then promotes it, and everybody’s got to try it. With Twitter, celebrities didn’t get there until it was popular. Twitter was a sensation before Larry King, Ashton Kutcher, or Oprah Winfrey started using it.

So what made it a sensation?

  • The founders (Evan Williams and Biz Stone) had already proven themselves successful with another innovation (Blogger), which they sold to Google. Because of this early success they could afford to take some time and build something solid. There was no financial pressure because they had money in the bank. They therefore spent their love of technology on building a great service.
  • Simplicity. Twitter is surprisingly simple. Any idiot can figure out how to use it.
  • Early adopters. Evan and Biz, due to the aforementioned early success, had an indoor with influential people of the Web. They did the smart thing and introduced Twitter to some of these influential people, who then started using it.
  • User-driven. Like most great innovations, users had their own ideas about how to use Twitter, which deviated from the founders’ vision. Twitter was simple and flexible enough that it allowed users to experiment and play around with ways to use the service, so they did.
  • Word Of Mouth. It still works. Once the early adopters had their chance to play, many of them influential members of the Web community, they started mentioning Twitter in public (on their blogs, social networks, etc.). Their blog and social followers took the hint and picked it up.
  • More Word Of Mouth. After early adopters, the cool kids (followers of the early adopters) did their own experimenting with Twitter. They discovered other cool things it could be used for. They too started promoting Twitter as a fun business and personal communication tool.
  • Offline WOM. Because early adopters kept promoting it and the cool kids said it made them more cool, the great unwashed masses couldn’t help themselves. They didn’t want to be left out. So with the help of early adopter enthusiasm and cool kid peer pressure, everyone else joined it. What’s so interesting about this is that many of these Johnny-Come-Latelies heard about Twitter off line from their cool friends.

This is a bit oversimplified, but this is based on my own observation of Twitter’s growth.


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