Google buying Twitter: Good for us, but what's in it for them?

In the latest Twitter buyout rumor, TechCrunch recently claimed that the micro-blogging site was in talks with Google about a potential buyout. Presumably, Twitter would allow Google to develop a search engine, in return for cash and Google stock. There are conflicting reports about the possible merger, with Kara Swisher's Boomtown blog saying that while Google and Twitter have talked, there are no plans for a buyout at the moment.

Whatever the outcome, when people talk about Twitter, the term zeitgeist often enters the conversation. A fancy German word for the spirit of the times, zeitgeist seems a natural way to describe Twitter. After all, in many ways, Twitter is the zeitgeist, or at least the best reflection of it.

Beneath the news feeds and the viral marketers, Twitter is composed of almost ten million users venting their feelings and thoughts. When the weather is gloomy, people twitter about it, and when a President's speech bores members of Congress, the tweets fly. On an individual basis, it is a means for noting personal emotions, but in a larger context, it is the pulse of the public (or at least that portion of it that uses the latest technology).

The most obvious commercial functionality of Twitter lies in its ability to allow pollsters, marketers, and researchers to tap into that pulse. Some crude tools already try to do this. For example, Twistori pulls ruminations from the Twitter feed by searching for emotional words like "I wish," "I love," "I hate," "I feel," and so forth. It then pours its findings out in an never-ending stream of feelings. Another site, Twitterverse, (when it is working) generates a tag cloud of Twitter, visually expressing the infinite world of tweets. The more popular a word is, the larger it appears, and users can modify the time frame from one hour to one day. As they change the data stream, they cna then click on the various generated terms to explore them more deeply. For people looking to explore the most popular themes of the moment, this could be very useful.

Twitter itself seems to be pursuing some sort of zeitgeist aggregator, but it is not yet functional. This could potentially be where Google would come in. The marriage of the planet's best searching tool and its emerging zeitgeist mirror would be amazing. In some ways, it could effectively allow users to delve into the raw thoughts and emotions of the planet, effectively polling millions of people without their knowledge.

This concept is both exciting and a little scary. What it isn't, however, is a clear money generator. As Bernstein analyst Jeffrey Lindsay notes, Twitter is a "pre-business." Like Netscape, Skype, YouTube, and dozens of other sites, it doesn't have an obvious method for generating income, and attempts to graft income generation onto it are likely to kill the golden goose. People who currently use it for free will most likely be unwilling to pay, and some may even balk if the site starts carrying banner ads. While the standard solution is to charge businesses for their tweets, even this is problematic, as many "viral marketers" blur the line between private twitterers and paid employees.

Twitter has already rejected a merger from Facebook, largely because its owners felt that the networking site had overvalued its stock. While many analysts praise that decision, I'm not so sure that it was a wise choice. In the end, Twitter seems unlikely to be a major money generator, and an influx of cash would have given its creators a little breathing room to plan their next project. As it is, they now find themselves in the odd position of trying to find a way to make society pay for the digital equivalent of a mirror.
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