Social Atoms and the Twitter Ecosystem

twitter-birdWhen Twitter first hit my radar screen sometime back in 2007, I (like many others) immediately dismissed it as a gimmicky little time-waster with no real value. I mean, a message limit of 140 characters? Lame. And what was it for? Nothing, apparently. It was like the Facebook status message, but all by itself, with no other services or features around it. What could possibly be the point?

In particular, I wondered why the Twitter team didn’t include more features, and left it up to external services to do things like search (which they eventually brought in-house by buying Summize). But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the lack of features is actually a positive, not a negative. What Twitter did was strip away all the clutter found on so many social networks and pare things down to their essence. A tweet is like the smallest possible unit of online interaction — the atom of social media (an idea I wish I could claim, but one that appears to have occurred to others as well).

By using those atoms as building blocks, other services have built larger structures. While many Twitter users might be happy to just post random “tweets” (a term that users came up with themselves, according to Twitter co-founder Evan Williams), eventually some of them are probably going to want to track some of their followers in groups using a “dashboard” type of app such as Tweetdeck, or export their messages using Tweetake, or track the most popular tweets through something like Tweetmeme or Retweet. They might want to filter messages using “hashtags” or keywords, using something like Tweetgrid. And then there’s the universe of URL-shortening services like Bit.ly (which has some interesting tracking features) and TinyURL, which got a huge boost from Twitter.

The number of Twitter-based services has continued to explode. There’s Stocktwits, from Howard Lindzon and Soren Macbeth, which lets you track stocks and trading; Mr. Tweet, which recommends Twitter users based on an analysis of the people you are already following; TweetLater, which lets you schedule future messages; TwitPic, which turns Twitter into a kind of Flickr-like photo-sharing service (and was used most famously to post that photo of Flight 1549 landing in the Hudson River); and some rather unique ones such as Follow Cost, which lets you check a particular user’s activity to see whether it will be time-consuming to follow them. There’s a list of some great services and tools here (in fact, the “15 Great Twitter Apps” type of post has become a staple of the blogosphere).

Of course, these aren’t really services at all — they’re features. In the normal kind of software or web-service environment they would have been part of the offering from the start, or the company would add or acquire them. Not so with Twitter (other than Summize). Instead an ecosystem of sorts has sprung up around it, with features disguised as stand-alone services all competing for attention in a kind of Darwinian process of evolution. So now that Williams and co-founder Biz Stone have raised $35 million that they didn’t really need, will they go on an acquisition spree? Possibly — although it’s not clear whether that would make the core service more appealing, or disrupt the ecosystem the company has created.

From a “business ecology” point of view, it’s also worth wondering whether an ecosystem that grows up around a single company or service — even one as great as Twitter — is sustainable over the long term. One way or another, it’s a fascinating process to watch.

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