Summary:

Twitter’s financial health and stock-price prospects have been the subject of much debate around the company’s IPO — but the real value doesn’t become apparent until you look at why users find the service so powerful

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There was plenty of talk about Twitter on Thursday — which isn’t surprising, considering the company went public in one of the most hotly-anticipated IPOs in recent memory. Most of the discussion was about financial things, of course: how much the shares listed for, how much they climbed on their first day, how many early investors and founders became billionaires overnight, etc.

There was very little talk about the most important thing, however, which is why people use the service and what is so compelling about it — two things that are theoretically the key to those billions of dollars in potential market value.

Two people who have been talking about that are Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic and Kathryn Schulz at New York magazine. Although the ways in which they approached the question were different, the underlying point is very similar: namely, that Twitter’s power is difficult to define because it is so idiosyncratic and personal in nature — but if and when you allow it to do so, it will seize hold of you and make it difficult to let go. And that is definitely valuable.

Everyone has an obsession with something

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Madrigal seemed to dismiss Twitter in a recent piece entitled “Twitter Is Weird — and Other Things Fatherhood Taught Me,” in which he talked about how being a new father made him detach himself from Twitter and social media in general, and focus on his family, and how this made him realize that Twitter is really only for obsessive information consumers:

“It’s great for what it is. But if you’re not a professional information gatherer, you don’t need it. Which might say something about its potential for growth, ahead of its IPO.”

In a piece on Wednesday, however, Madrigal got closer to what I think is the truth about Twitter with a piece that looked at some of the most highly-retweeted posts — including one from the rapper Drake, one from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and one from soccer player Christiano Ronaldo — and tried to determine what they might say about the service. The Atlantic writer concluded that what unifies them all is that large numbers of people are obsessed with them in some way:

“Maybe Twitter is made for obsessives, but the content of their obsessions doesn’t matter. Maybe instead of casting itself as a simple, fun, easy tool, Twitter should bow to the pressures of its own tool, and rebrand for the hardcore experience. Here’s the new, more accurate tagline: Twitter: Find Your Obsession.”

So Twitter is for “obsessive information consumers” — but the key is that everyone is a potentially obsessive consumer of information about something. It might be soccer, it might be Drake, it might be astronomy, but everyone has a particular interest that they are mildly (or more than mildly) obsessive about, and that is what Twitter caters to. And it’s also why the service can become so addictive, just as IRC and other real-time discussion platforms were in their time.

A real-time community of like minds

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Kathryn Schulz gets even closer to the truth in her New York magazine piece, entitled “That Goddamned Blue Bird and Me: How Twitter Hijacked My Mind,” in which she describes how uninterested she was by Twitter when it was first recommended to her — as a way to promote her book — and how she got sucked into using it gradually, as she found more and more people worth following and created what Twitter likes to call an “interest graph” of real-time connections. In other words, a community:

“Collectively, the people I follow on Twitter — book nerds, science nerds, journalists, the uncategorizably interesting — come pretty close to my dream community. They also function as by far the best news source I’ve ever used: more panoptic, more in-depth, more likely to teach me something, much more timely, cumulatively more self-correcting and sophisticated.”

This is the key to Twitter (and I’ve talked about my own love-hate relationship with it before): the ability to create a virtual community made up of people who share your interests — or are simply smart, funny, insightful, strange, or all of the above rolled into one — and to be able to talk about things with them and share interesting links with them in real time. It sounds simple, but it’s very difficult to describe, if only because everyone’s experience of it is so different.

Now all Twitter has to do is continue to make it possible for people to do that without cluttering the whole experience up with advertising and other features that distort the signal-to-noise ratio, and it will be well on the road to justifying its $30-billion or so in market value.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Sunny Studio – Igor Yaruta and Flickr user Christian Scholz

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