Why the world is suddenly all a-twitter
Record numbers sign up to site that lets us share every detail of our lives with the world
By Amol Rajan and Jack Sidders
Friday, January 23, 2009
It was established as a communication tool for geeks and now counts show business stars and the American President among its users.
The popularity of Twitter, the micro-blogging service used by President Obama to remind Americans to vote and tennis player Andy Murray to update fans on the weather, has risen so much that it has seen its visitor numbers increase by nearly 1,000 per cent.
Latest figures from Hitwise, the online intelligence service, show a 974 per cent increase in traffic, jolting Twitter from the 2,953rd most popular site to the 291st most visited by mid-January.
Widely feted as the follow up to the networking site Facebook in the evolution of web communication, the service allows users to post short updates about what they are doing. Established as the preferred communication tool for members of the tech community, the service has now entered the mainstream as a form of instant news alert and marketing technique.
The recent explosion in user numbers is largely a product of enthusiasm for a new form of citizen journalism. President Obama has a Twitter profile, although it has been quiet of late, while news of the recent plane crash in New York's Hudson River first emerged from survivors' Twitter updates.
Jonathan Ross, the disgraced BBC presenter, has been using the service to chat with fans during his enforced absence from the BBC. He has said he will Twitter live with Stephen Fry, another celebrated Twitterer, on his BBC television programme tonight.
"Twitter was one of the fastest-growing websites last year, and shows no signs of slowing down," said Robin Goad, director of research for Hitwise. "If anything, the service is even more popular than our numbers imply, as we are only measuring traffic to the main Twitter website.
"If the people accessing their Twitter accounts via mobile phones and third party applications [such as Twitteriffic, Twitterfeed, and Tweetdeck] were included, the numbers could be even higher. Many people seem to find Twitter addictive: the average amount of time that people spend on Twitter.com has more than trebled from less than 10 minutes a year ago to half an hour now."
Twitter does not provide official figures for its usage, but industry analysts believe that more than 2.25 million "tweets" are posted every day, on top of more than 1.1 billion such messages since the service was launched in early 2007.
And the site is about to open a radical new arm of its operation by integrating search functions into the home pages of users. Until now, users who wanted to search for "tweets" had to go to a separate website, search.twitter.com.
That obstacle is thought to have put off many members of the public. But over the next 10 days, Twitter will start putting search functions into the home page of around 1 per cent of users, asking them for feedback about its efficacy. Biz Stone, one of Twitter's co-founders, deflected criticism of his creation as simply a platform for narcissists. "Search integration is a way of introducing relevancy to people", he said. "This is not just about, 'What are you doing?' but about what everyone else is doing. Twitter is about finding out what is going on out there right now in real time."
The fastest growing group of users is in the 35 to 44 year-old bracket and accounts for 17.3 per cent of visitors. Growth is likely to be accelerated by the reintroduction of free two-way text messaging of "tweets" to countries outside the US.
The service was withdrawn in Europe last year because it was too expensive for the company. For all Twitter's success, it remains a small player in online networking. Facebook is the most-visited networking site in the UK, with almost 38 per cent share of the market, followed by YouTube, Bebo, and MySpace, with 17 per cent, 9.1 per cent, and 5 per cent respectively.