Twitter, the service for posting short updates, has consumed the media elite. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is privately obsessed with it. By the numbers, though, Twitter is an inconsequential nothing.
The latest reports put Twitter at 4 million users — against Facebook's 140 million. At the rate Twitter is adding new users, it will catch up with Facebook's current numbers in late 2044, the ReadWriteWeb technology blog cuttingly observes. HubSpot, a market researcher, finds that almost a third of Twitter's users are clueless — "brand new or unengaged."
And who are some of Twitter's most active users? Journalists like New York Times TV blogger Brian Stelter, who started using it in early 2008. When CNN unveiled a new wire-copy service, Stelter reported on how other reporters used Twitter to post their reactions.
We have reached some new height in the annals of media insideriness when reporters find a new Internet service notable mostly in the way their colleagues use it. And they can't stop writing about it! Though Facebook users outnumber Twitter users 35 to 1, according to a search of Google News over the last month, Facebook has been mentioned only four times more often than Twitter.
So why is Zuckerberg so concerned with Twitter?
In part, it must be jealous over Twitter's buzz. When Facebook opened up to anyone with an email address in late 2006 — before, it was limited to college and high school students — journalists went through a similar phase of fascination, which has long since faded. Facebook actually introduced its status-updates feature shortly before Twitter launched, but it's not identified with the company the way Twitter is. And most Facebook status updates are visible only to the user's friends. Twitter turns Facebook inside out, by making people's fleeting thoughts visible to the world. For Zuckerberg, who wants people to confess their every momentary emotion to his website, Twitter's public confessional must be an object of fascination.
That's why Zuckerberg's lieutenants looked seriously at buying Twitter. The talks came to nothing. Which is just as well: Twitter's inexperienced executives still haven't come up with a serious plan for making money, and they're hemorrhaging cash by forwarding messages to cell phones since the phone companies charge them for each one sent.
Perhaps Twitter should take advantage of journalists' fascination, and charge them for membership. There must be some way to soak the growing ranks of Twitter addicts in newsrooms. It's not like they can do without it: For people who file copy all day, the 140-character limit on Twitter messages is a sweet relief. And it also makes dealing with readers bearable. (Ever gotten a 5,000-word email from an obsessed amateur critic? Yeah, those are fun. To delete.)
For our part, we're going to document the Twitterati. Numbers aside, there's something wonderful about the way the service makes intelligent people prone to blurting stupidity. As long as it has the right people saying the wrong things, Twitter will always mean something to us. Spot a stupid Twitter message? Send it in.