Twitter had another hacker attack yesterday. Several media outlets reported that the micro-blogging system was down periodically though the early morning and afternoon. The service had more severe problems last week. There have been rumors that the target of the attacks is a blogger in Georgia who has been critical of neighboring state Russia.
It is difficult to see what advantage the Russians gain by upsetting the tens of millions of people outside Georgia by shutting Twitter down, many of whom may actually think well of Mr. Putin and his fellow comrades.
The Twitter outage introduces the concept of whether anyone would really miss the service if it went away. Financial experts have argued that Twitter is not worth much even with its 30 million or so unique visitors, a number that varies wildly depending on the source. The press has carried stories over the last few months reporting that the service is growing 1,400%, 500%, and, in some cases, is barely growing at all. Ars Technica recently reviewed Twitter research done by HubSpot. The tech website reported that “HubSpot’s analysis of Twitter’s 4.5 million accounts revealed that 54.9 percent of users have never tweeted and 52.7 have no followers whatsoever.” Put more simply, many of the people who sign up for Twitter accounts never use them.
It is not hard to understand what people would lose if CNN.com (TWX) closed down. The same is true of WSJ.com (NWS) or Yahoo! (YHOO). Facebook and MySpace also appear to have a tremendous value to many of their members who seem to use the sites to keep their entire lives online. These users reveal more than everything the world needs to know about them. Many have social network online identities that are decorated with songs, videos, games, messages and great volumes of information of little interest to anyone but the holder of that social network spot.
Twitter, with its 140 character per message limitation, is no match for the capacity to put a lifetime online the way a member of Facebook can or the ability to watch the Michael Jackson funeral online the way viewers of CNN.com can.
It would probably be hard to get the average user of Twitter to say much about what he or she would lose if the service disappeared. Obviously, research shows that many of these people are Twitter members in name only. Many others seem to use the service infrequently. That leaves some number of “hardcore” people who spend a substantial part of their time sending each other Tweets for the better part of some or, in unfortunate cases, most days. Twitter is for them, a cell phone without a voice. Based on that analogy most of the time spent on Twitter has no redeeming social or economic value, unless it connects the agoraphobic or the desperately lonely.
Destroying the handsets of most Americans would result in lower phone bills, but would hardly disrupt the world otherwise. Certain businesspeople rely on wireless communications for much of their productivity. People would miss being able to talk about where to meet family or friends. The most important feature of the cell phone that would disappear would be its use during emergencies, which can hardly be matched by any other device. Once those useful features are disregarded, most cell phone use is simply for random conversation with very little redeeming value. In fact, its overuse is a serious problem for productivity in the workplace and an annoyance in most civilized social situations. After all, who is so important that they can not visit the doctor without tweeting or talking throughout the consultation? This happens all the time.
Twitter’s value in emergencies is almost certainly non-existent, particularly for anyone who has a phone, landline, wireless, or other communication device. No one has been able to prove that the service has any commercial value or use for businesses to communicate with other businesses or their employees. Twitter readily admits it is trying to find a way to make money on the service it has created. A number of businesses have raised money to create companies that will add value to the Twitter service and make money by making twitter a way to pay bills or a way to get people to go to retail outlets to buy merchandise that has just gone on sale.
It may be old fashioned to look at the value of a business based on whether it provides any real service to the people who are its “customers.” The best way to evaluate that may simply be to ask what would happen if Twitter suddenly went away. In the case of McDonald’s (MCD), Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), or Wal-Mart (WMT) a sudden disappearance would be a really big problem for its customers.
If Twitter closes, or ceases to operate because its service is constantly interrupted, no one would be really affected.
Douglas A. McIntyre