15 hottest products of 2008: Twitter

At first, I didn't get Twitter. The internet service allows users to write and send, via SMS or online, short (140 characters max) messages to a network of fellow Twitters, usually off-the-cuff updates describing what they are doing at the moment. I couldn't see why anyone would want to have such insights into my life. However, slowly and surely, after getting enough emails from people who said they were following me on Twitter, I started using it again and soon after, wrote a post for WalletPop called "The Secrets of Mixing Business with Twitter."

Safe to say that probably most of the country's 301 million residents still don't get Twitter, but 6 million do. That is, six million have signed up, according to The New York Times, but concludes that "the number who use it regularly is much smaller." Still, that's not bad, considering it was launched in 2006, although as the Times says, it didn't really begin to take off until around March of 2007.

Twitter continues to amaze, astound, or underwhelm and baffle, depending on your point of view. For instance, a couple weeks ago in The Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Turner writes about recently joining Twitter and seemed a little unsure but open about its possibilities.

"Nary a tweet have I posted thus far, yet already I have a dozen subscribers. Who are they? How long will they wait? Why do they wait? Will they spurn me if I fail to twitter? Would a banter suffice?"

I know how she feels, although I'm starting to get the hang of it. In any case, plenty of people do see its possibilities. Facebook offered Twitter $500 million in October to buy its service, but Twitter's CEO and co-founder Evan Williams turned him down. Apparently, he wasn't drunk either. (I'm thinking I'd have to be, to turn down $500 million.)

"We explored it, as we should. We took it seriously," Mr. Williams told the Times. But the $500 million offer was mostly in stock, and Williams wants to spend more time with Twitter and turn it into a revenue-maker. Presently, Twitter doesn't generate income.

Not for Twitter's company--funded with $20 million--perhaps, but it does make money for those who use it. I've interviewed business owners who have landed deals on Twitter or simply used it to leverage knowledge from others. For the unemployed, it can be invaluable to stay in touch with industry peers. It's a networking device, in other words, more informal and immediate than LinkedIn or even Facebook, and like them, used by many people in the corporate set.

Most people, however Twitter to communicate with friends on the fly. In fact, during the tragic carnage in Mumbai, one writer acquaintance of mine used Twitter to get updates from friends who were texting while in hiding.

If you're intrigued and want to make it 6 million and 1 people registered, but you wouldn't know a tweet from a twit, I recommend reading this recent blog posting from author Alisa Bowman. It's one of the funniest and most informative explanations of Twitter I've seen. If you're past that, and you want to use Twitter to better your business acumen, then business guru Guy Kawasaki recently wrote a terrific post on how to use Twitter as a business tool.

And what does Twitter's future look like? Even Williams doesn't sound sure. "We will make money," he promised when speaking at a recent event in San Francisco. "And I can't say exactly how because... we can't predict how the businesses we're in will work."

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).He can be found on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/geoffw

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