How Twitter Could Crash and Burn

ScreenshotTwitter remains one of our favorite services here at WWD. Just about all of us use it for casual “water-cooler” conversation, as well as for asking questions of the lazyweb and keeping track of our friends (and even family). But recently things have not been so happy at Twitter – as they’ve admitted themselves.

Still, despite the attempts of many, from Pownce to Plurk, to build a better Twitter, by and large the userbase seems to be staying put. I’ve heard from more than one of my contacts that they’d be happy to leave Twitter’s problems behind, except for one little thing: all of their friends are still on Twitter. By building up a huge mass of users, Twitter benefits from our existing social connections and their inertia. But as the problems continue, it’s possible that someone else could grab the mindshare – and traffic – that currently belongs to Twitter. Here’s a five-step plan for building a “Twitter killer.”
1. Keep it Simple. Too many of the potential Twitter competitors load up on the features, in the hope of finding something to compel the maximum number of users to visit them, or to avoid being derided as a simple Twitter clone. But that ignores one of the biggest attractions of Twitter: it’s a site that lets you do one simple thing that many people want to do – talk about themselves. The more complex you make a microblogging site, the less accessible it will be to everyone.

2. Provide an API. On the other hand, Twitter made is possible for anyone who wants to extend it to do so through an easy API. This has fueled the growth of the Twitter ecosystem, increasing Twitter’s lock-in; if you depend on any application built on top of Twitter, you’re stuck on Twitter. Any competing service must offer an API that opens up all of their data, that supports frequent calls, and that is available through a variety of client-side languages.

3. Make Migration Easy. Twitter’s biggest asset is Twitterers. Any site that wants to become the “new Twitter” needs to make it dead simple to move your contacts over from the current Twitter. Fortunately, the Twitter API should make this fairly easy. Unfortunately, many sites have show how easy it is to turn “invite my friends” into “spam my address book.”

4. Use Serious Infrastructure. Downtime is the Achilles Heel of Twitter. Every time the service has problems, people grumble – though so far they haven’t left. If you want to replace Twitter, you need serious, world-class infrastructure behind you. This almost certainly means using Google AppEngine or Amazon Web Services rather than rolling your own server farm. (One interesting possibility: Google could re-release Jaiku under their own branding and on their own servers).

5. Find the Revenue. The days of investors throwing money at anything Web 2.0 are drawing to a close, and Twitter’s coyness about having a plan to make money some day is wearing thin. A serious contender should launch with its revenue plan clear out of the gate – whether this is inserting ads or selling a premium level of service. Give people reassurance that you’ll be around and you increase the chance that they’ll switch.

There you are: 5 easy steps to building your own fabulously-successful company on the internet. Anyone want to step up to the plate and take a swing at it?