Has Twitter Really Reached a Tipping Point?

Venture capitalist and blogger Fred Wilson says he believes that Twitter has reached “an inflection point.” Since the Union Square Ventures partner is one of the company’s financial backers, it’s not surprising that he would choose to see the service as playing that kind of pivotal role. But Wilson is also a keen observer of the web and particularly the social web, so it’s worth looking at what he has to say. In a nutshell, he says that Twitter could be at the edge of an inflection point — or what pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell chose to call a “tipping point” in his book of the same name — similar to the one that the computing industry hit in the 1980s, when PCs became commonplace.

Interestingly, while some have argued that Twitter was smart to allow others to build on its platform, Wilson says that the company “really should have had all of that when it launched or it should have built those services right into the Twitter experience” (a comment that has some third-party Twitter services concerned). He also compares the kind of point Twitter is at with the development of Facebook-based businesses:

When Facebook platform launched, we saw a massive number of new products and services launched on The Facebook. But many were slight variations on existing Facebook features (like Superwall) or holes in the Facebook service. As Facebook closed up those holes and enhanced their own feature set, those apps fell to the wayside. But there was one entirely new business that got created on top of the Facebook platform and that is social gaming, which industry analysts project will be a $1.6bn market this year and I think that number is low.

There’s no question that Twitter has spawned a micro-industry of apps and services that make use of the Twitter API (application programming interface) or the Twitter “firehose,” including real-time search as implemented by Google and Microsoft. The Programmable Web says that it now has 43 Twitter-derived APIs in its directory — in other words, services that offer their own APIs based on content pulled from Twitter. But are services that offer features like the “Auto Follow Friday” API really analogous to the kind of market-changing innovation Wilson is talking about in the 1980s? If any of them are, it isn’t obvious.

The Union Square founder describes some places where he sees the potential for “killer apps” based on Twitter to emerge, including social gaming, vertical applications and services such as Stocktwits, enterprise services such as CoTweet, discovery tools such as TweetMeme and analytical services such as Radian6. But even Wilson admits that there are few major successes to point to in any of these areas so far. Does that mean that Twitter can’t support the kind of business model and innovation that Fred is talking about, or that it just hasn’t gotten to that point yet? Maybe we’ll see some real innovation at the Chirp conference next week.

For what it’s worth, I think Twitter is much more like email or instant messaging — or Skype — than it is like a platform such as Facebook, upon which other major business segments can be built. Have there been any real new businesses or innovation built on email or IM or Skype? Not really. But you can’t say they haven’t changed the way people behave or the way businesses operate in a variety of ways. In a sense, they have infiltrated our lives in ways we hardly even understand. Maybe that’s ultimately a bigger deal than even Fred is talking about, but it’s a lot harder to measure, and a lot harder to value.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): How Human Users Are Holding Twitter Back

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy Flickr user boxchain