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October 03, 2009

It's Twitter's World: The Second, Parallel, Internet

It's Twitter's world. We all just live in it. I just looked out the window from my home north toward San Francisco and saw the sky tinged with a teal blue that spanned the horizon. While at this time last year, you could only see the faintest blue with a telescope, over the last several months, the blue light has grown ever brighter - almost blinding, to the point I can't even see Moffett Field from my condo in Sunnyvale. I've heard that SFO has even had to divert flights from landing on its North-facing runway after sundown thanks to this radioactive-like glow emanating from Twitter headquarters, as it has proven distracting to pilots who more than once have fallen into a trance-like stare, unblinkingly gasping in 140 characters or less. And I fear even with these precautions, it's only a matter of time before something bad happens. You can retweet that.

Try as I might to not be in this Silicon Valley bubble, I can't practically go anywhere or talk to anyone without hearing the word Twitter. "I've got to Tweet that!", one person exclaims. "Overheard!" cries another. "Hold on - let me check into Foursquare," says another guest at dinner, with the white artificial light glowing from his iPhone to his chest, tucked away behind the dinner menu. A phone call comes... "Did you see my tweet? Isn't that cool?" Even my iPhone apps, which I invited into my home, want me to tweet my high scores.

Sigh.

And if that weren't bad enough, many people practically expect that I have reserved Twitter user names for my 15 month-old twins. They can't yet talk, and their excitement around a laptop is practically limited to smashing the keys and being fascinated by the green light on the Caps Lock, but I am supposed to have secured their Tweeting future. Negatory on that geek rite of passage.

To be honest, it's not as if I am a hundred percent opposed to this change. If my life is to be "live tweeted" for the rest of my days, and future marital contracts will include a clause on whether one's twitter handles will change on the day of matrimony, so be it. I can accept the fact that this product, bluer than Viagra, which makes you type out messages as if you were stoned on marijuana at the speed of a crack addict, is habit forming. It's infrastructure - the new e-mail. It's the social networking glue that connects my phone and my RSS to various downstream networks. It is home to a community of people who have made their own "tweetspeak", who engage in "tweetups" and read books made "for dummies" to use Twitter - since clearly, it's so hard.

Regardless of whether you think Twitter is worth a billion dollars or a bazillion dollars, or think it's just Monopoly money, I can't help but think Twitter is running an end-around play on Google. While Google has the broadest horizontal index of pages, and is busy scouring an amazing mountain of sites to get their every word, Twitter, in a vertical approach, is getting the world's updates, and a similarly overwhelming number of links being shared. While I don't have the numbers behind me now, it would not surprise me if at some point soon, the absolute number of links (including duplicate links) shared via Twitter exceeds the net new URLs discovered by Google each day. And you can forget about linking instead of retweeting. That's the old way for Web 1.0 dinosaurs.

Twitter is practically becoming a parallel Internet. It may live on HTTP, but don't let that fool you. Over time, most folks may tell you the T's in HTTP stand for "Tweet Tweet".

In February, I said Facebook's success made it the social media prism, through which other activity would be referenced and measured. But the sheer volume of updates from Twitter is drowning all the downstream networks. If you have an aggregation service, be it the Facebook news feed, FriendFeed (now part of Facebook) or Ecademy's NetNews, you almost have to seek out posts that are NOT Twitter to find the diamonds in the rough.

Twitter is a firehose, not just for those who have glued their eyelids open, working hard not to miss a single update in TweetDeck or Seesmic, Tweetie, Brizzly, Hootsuite or a million other apps, but in terms of its sheer mass being able to render competing networks irrelevant. Facebook may be bigger today by a large margin, but it is Twitter that has the buzz. It is Twitter that is forcing the change in language, and making our LOLspeak the new standard.

Twitter was supposed to be simple. Update me what you are doing. But the community saw beyond that, helping make this product, best defined by its limitations, something else entirely. Products like TwitPic were made which helped users easily share images and videos. Users found ways to use hashtags to rally around events and causes, introduced retweeting to forward interesting items, and @replies to talk directly with one another. Directories like WeFollow were set up, without Twitter's help, to more easily discover like-minded users, and sites like Tweetmeme debuted to show the most popular links out there.

Like it or not, Twitter has become the standard for short communication. For the many of us who liked our own favorite service which we believed did more and had more flexibility or options, we were vastly outnumbered by the masses who are drinking the bright blue Kool-aid. Even as I, and others, may drag our feet reluctantly, we know we don't have a choice. Businesses who scoff at the usefulness of "The Big T" now recognize it is just another marketplace, and everybody is selling something - be it a real product, or a personal brand. Spammers love it. And that's a sure sign that you're on to something big.

To question if Twitter is going to crash and burn now under its newfound publicity and ridiculous expectations is like saying Bing's decision engine is going to make Google go bankrupt. You might as well rail against e-mail and hope it dies a quick death. Twitter owns you. Just check their recently updated terms of service. It's in there. And I promise you that you are a nobody until you've been selected to join the Suggested Users List. That's where all the cool people are. It's Twitter's world.