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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 (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.

27 Responses to “Social Atoms and the Twitter Ecosystem”

  1. @Sujay — thanks for the link, although Om didn’t write the post (I did). And @Todd, that’s an excellent point — I actually thought about quarks and other quantum-level phenomena while I was writing the post (muons, etc.) but then I thought I was getting a little too elaborate :-) But your point is a good one.

  2. Sounds a bit like the Palm Pilot. I remember finding out how a bigger, more complex version of it was released prior and bombed, but the slimmed down, simple version was a hit. I think there are two things that make Twitter great in that respect:

    1. Initially, it only does one thing, and that’s its core service. There’s nothing else to learn, nothing else to distract you (not even ads), making it easy to learn and use.
    2. The ability to add a bunch of custom tools and features, but with a very simple core, gives it special functionality. You get the specific bells and whistles you want without changing the experience for anyone else. By letting the user community add the extra features, they never have to worry about breaking the core and they never have to figure out what the core is, yet the users can still get the extras they want.

  3. I would respectfully disagree that a tweet is the “smallest possible unit of online interaction”. Well represented within the 140 characters are activity stream verbs, multiple subjects ( represented by shortened URLs ), multiple actors ( @username ), old school emoticons, lolspeak, acronyms and hash tags.

    You should consider each to be “quarks” of online interaction.

    P.S. “yes” quarks can be broken down to even smaller parts!

  4. I like the entire “open source” approach to Twitter. To keep people using its zen-reduced socialization model, they must keep it free to users, but I can see Twitter offering contained accounts for corporations. Basically, a corporation uses twitter internally between each other–the employees–and possibly extend it to the consumer. It could work in both directions actually depending on the corporation’s purpose. Personally, I would like to have our institution (community college) establish TWITTER as a method of communicating with students, and I can see us paying a small yearly fee to maintain such a model hosted by TWITTER and not on our own server. However, Twitter would need a customer-service approach model, which calls for mighty organization! Finally, I do not want to see Twitter bombarded with google, yahoo, or microsoft advertisements!

  5. True, I believed twitter was also a big waste of time before. Until I understood the power it had, it’s such a simple concept (I wonder if the founder knew what twitter was going to be?). Even Facebook couldn’t beat it using their status.


  6. 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.

    There are several examples of successful ecosystems built around a single company or service: take the iPod economy for example- 1000s of companies generating more than $1b in revenue. Or the training companies built around MCSE or CNE certification. Or the 1000s of programmers that specialize in 1 language.

  7. What I find hilarious are all the services that are trying to add photos and videos to “microblogging” now.

    Ironically, we had something that did just that not long ago — it was called “blogging”.

  8. Twitter is in its 4 round of funding and has generated $55 million in start up capital with making one dime. They are hoping to create a revenue model with Spark Capitals $35 million in investment They don’t have a monetization model and rumors state that Twitter is gearing up to charge commercial users a subscription fee. If you take a hard look at this economy and technology, one player that is making money is Google. Internet advertising is a $57 billion dollar industry and growing. Google & Yahoo both recently stated that the future in is “human edited search” and strategic investments in startup companies like may worthy investments for the future. Check out this article by David Krechevsky;, David may have stumbled on to the future of search and has a monetization model that works.