The microblogging service Twitter debuted five years ago, and by all accounts it's one of the great success stories of the social media era.
Twitter boasts 200 million users and 350 billion tweets per day, and it's a ubiquitous reference on mainstream TV. Visit Twitter today, and it's a hive of frenetic activity. Millions of people rely on the service for news, commentary, blog updates and social interaction. Twitter is about to close an $800 million funding round, which values the company at about $8 billion.
Suddenly, however, the service has been rendered obsolete by Google's new Google+ service, and also by the company's failure to capitalize on its five-year window of opportunity to innovate its way to indispensability.
It's only a matter of time before Twitter becomes a ghost town. Here's why.
Twitter's Google+ problem
Google launched its Google+ social site about three weeks ago. The site's perfect storm of social features will sink Twitter.
Google+ has Twitter-like "following," rather than Facebook-like "friending." That means you can follow anyone without his or her permission. Google+ has a Twitter-like "feed" or "stream" that presents the posts of the people you follow the moment they're posted.
Asymmetric following and instant feeds are two of the four core attributes of Twitter. The third is brevity. Twitter famously restricts posts to 140 characters or less. And the fourth is an API that enables other companies to tap into the stream and do interesting things with the flow of tweets.
But it's only a matter of time before Google+ will have all four of Twitter's core attributes.
Many Twitter users like short tweets or, more accurately, they like the fact that blabbermouths are forced to be concise. The resulting stream is terse, and skimmable, although many of the best tweets actually link to blogs or articles that are longer and wordier. (Never mind that the reason for the limit was initially to fit the tweets into SMS text messages, a requirement made obsolete by the use of mobile apps.)
The coming APIs from Google will enable third-party companies to present Google+ streams in Twitter-like summaries, with links to full posts. Anyone who likes the shortness of Twitter posts can also get short Google+ posts. Even without those APIs, people are already doing this. Silicon Valley entrepreneur, blogger and venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, for example, has already built a page he calls "Pluserati," which presents short versions of the most recent five posts by the biggest users on Google+. By hovering your mouse pointer over the short version, you get a longer version. By clicking, you get the original post.
While Google+ will soon do all the things Twitter does, Twitter can't support a long list of the things Google+ supports. Conversations, for example. Each post on Google+ can be followed by comments where users can hold a detailed and satisfying conversation about the post. On Twitter, commenting is awkward because when you comment, your comments are not generally seen by the poster's other followers, but by your own followers, who probably did not see the post. You see a lot of replies on Twitter referencing posts you never saw. For a social service, Twitter is pretty antisocial.
Also on Google+, you can post pictures and videos directly in posts, launch immediately into a video chat, send your posts to nonmembers and even present all your posts marked "Public" as a blog available to anyone with an Internet connection.
Twitter's Twitter problem
It's worth noting that Twitter's apparent success is something of a mirage. People tend to think that Twitter has a lot of users. But if you look closely, the illusion falls apart. Millions of people have signed up for the service but have never used it. Millions more used it for a while, but stopped.
For example, out of 175 million registered accounts, only 119 million were actually following someone in April. If you don't follow on Twitter, you don't see any posts. Only 85 million accounts had one or more followers. If nobody follows you, you're not communicating with anyone. You're not really a "user" if you're not using the service.
Twitter defines an "active user" as one who follows at least 30 people and has at least 10 people who follow him. A source with access to Twitter's API who was quoted by Business Insider in April says that there were only 21 million people or accounts on Twitter that met the "active user" criteria.
Google+ probably has more than 21 million users already, although numbers on how many of those are "active" have not been published. In other words, the number of users Google+ has gained in three weeks is equal to the number of active users Twitter has gained in five years.
Twitter is extraordinarily vulnerable, especially since Google+ users are exactly the same kinds of people who will want to use Google+: Pundits, celebrities, business owners, bloggers and people involved in politics. In addition, Google+ will appeal to the kinds of users turned off by Twitter: teens, Facebook refugees, and the masses of people who don't want to learn Twitter's unique slang and command codes.
I believe a majority of Twitter's most active users will also be on Google+ within a few months after Google opens its social networking site to the public. But most of the active users of Google+ will not be on Twitter.
I also predict that a growing number of the links on Twitter will direct followers to original posts on Google+, where a real conversation can take place.
Increasingly, Twitter will become an empty shell, a place where most of the posts are placed there automatically from the services where people are genuinely active, and where many of the links will take followers outside of Twitter to social sites like Google+ for ensuing conversation.
Celebrities will prefer G+ because its pictures, videos and viral sharing will give them better control over their images and because it will give them access to a bigger potential audience for their posts.
Pundits will like G+ better because it's better for crowdsourcing and feedback. (I crowdsourced ideas for this column on Google+ and got high-quality input from 100 people in three hours.)
Bloggers will like it because Google+ is the most friction-free blogging platform, with most of the social attributes of Tumblr. Several prominent bloggers have already closed their existing blogs and now just use Google+. In the future, many bloggers will feed their blogs into Google+, or will feed their public Google+ posts out of that service and into their custom-designed blogs.
Today, Twitter still has a lot of fans and defenders, even on Google+. Twitter is currently a better megaphone than Google+; it's better for talking at a large audience without having them engage you back. It's much better today for quick news because all the news sources have established feeds on Twitter. It's easier to skim, unlike Google+, which is wordy and time-consuming. And Twitter allows anonymity, which is better for people who want to criticize repressive governments.
But that's today. Tomorrow, most or all of those advantages will be erased by improvements to Google+, the addition of third-party add-ons and apps, and the participation of businesses, publications and a lot more people.
I don't see how Twitter can defend itself from the Google+ challenge.
When you add up what Google+ can do today and what it will do tomorrow, it's clear that Twitter is perfectly obsolete.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.