Twitter: A Force To Be Reckoned With
Here’s a silly question: Have you ever heard of Twitter? Chances are, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last three or so years, the answer is “yes”. Or, you at least have some idea of the micro-blogging craze that is sweeping the Internet.

But did you know that the Twitter population is more diverse than America as a whole? Or that it has become a viable resource for news events and company complaints? Or that there’s been talk of charging for commercial accounts? Pew Internet & American Life Project’s most recent survey of online Americans brings us these behind-the-scenes tidbits of the Web’s most popular micro-blogging tool.

So What Are You Doing Right Now? (For Under Rock Dwellers)

Twitter and other standalone status update services such as Yammer give users a quick, easy way to post blurbs about the developments of their choice in order to update their network of family, friends and colleagues. Their network of followers will see the posts immediately and can respond via a public update of their own, or a private message. In this way, status update services act like a cross between a personal blog, social network and text message.

Who knew such a simple concept would become to game-changing? And the numbers are growing. The PIP memo found that as of December 2008 some 11% of online American adults had used a micro-blog service like Twitter. That compares to 9% of online U.S. users who were asked in November 2008 if they used Twitter or similar platforms. A comparable survey question form PIP in May 2008 got a 6% “yes” response.

The Young and the Broke

Like other social media, micro-blogs have been taken up with great enthusiasm by a younger crowd. Numerically speaking, Pew found that 19% of online adults ages 18 through 24 have used the services, as have 20% of those 25 through 34. But the average Twitter user is older than the average member of the most prominent social networks. The median age for a Twitter user is 31, compared to 27 for MySpace and 26 for Facebook.

Because of their age and since the U.S. youth are more diverse in race and ethnicity than the online U.S. population as a whole, Twitter users are also a more varied racial and ethnic mix than the country overall. For the same reasons of age, they are also more likely to have little more than lint in their pockets. As far as digs go, thirty-five percent of Twitter users live in urban markets compared to 29% of all Internet users. Only 9% of those using Twitter live in rural areas, as opposed to 17% of the general U.S. online population.

Twitter and Other Social Media

Twitter's success is no doubt in part because of how similar it is to features found in social network superstars like Facebook and Myspace. Similar to a micro-blog post, most social network services feature status update functionality, usually equipped with an add-on for emoticons in case the allowed number of characters just isn't enough to do your feelings justice.

Pew found that nearly one quarter of those respondents who said they use social networks said they also used Twitter, compared to a 4% Twitter rate among those who said they are not users of social networks.

A Force To Be Reckoned With. Really.

If you think all status update services are good for is self indulgence and to annoyingly tell the world what you had for dinner, you're wrong. Twitter enthusiasts around the globe have used the service to help organize and disseminate information during major events as well as for flirting and witty banter. From the 2008 California wildfires to this year's elections, from the Mumbai massacre and the crash of US airways flight 1549, Twitter has been there. 

In extreme cases, photographs are even offered up. Janis Krum, a passenger on a ferry that rushed to the scene of flight 1549's plight, took a photo of the plane with a cell phone and sent it out via his Twitter feed.

Twitter and other status updates have also been used for many other purposes including the airing of complaints against companies, sharing ideas, forwarding interesting material, documenting events and of course, conversing.

Would You Pay to Tweet?

A growing number of consumer brands have begun to use Twitter as a way to reach their advocates. Starbucks, for example, launched a Twitter account last summer that linked to its online community in addition to its general-discussion Twitter account. Dell also operates dozens of different Twitter accounts, including one that publicizes online deals—some exclusive to Twitter users.

In a reaction to Twitter’s immense popularity, company founder Biz Stone recently announced in an interviewer that the company was looking for ways to monetize that appeal. Understandably, the sky subsequently fell as Twitter users around the globe began tweeting in protest. To quell everyone's fears, the following statement appeared on Twitter’s blog the next day:

There was a sudden burst of news early this week surrounding some ideas we've shared publicly for quite some time. We've been thinking out loud for more than a year about the growing use of Twitter by companies, brands, and other commercial organizations. It's great that both individuals and organizations are finding value in Twitter and there may be ways we can enrich the experience. In fact, we hope to begin iterating on revenue products this year.

However, it's important to note that whatever we come up with, Twitter will remain free to use by everyone—individuals, companies, celebrities, etc. What we're thinking about is adding value in places where we are already seeing traction, not imposing fees on existing services. We are still very early in the idea stage and we don't have anything to share just yet despite a recent surge in speculation. When we do, we'll be sure to let you know.

Stone likely says that with confidence now because unlike the majority of us, the company is hardly feeling the effects of the rough economy, if at all. Numerically speaking again, Twitter recently secured US$ 35m in new capital in a funding round. Two previous rounds raised a total of US$ 20m.

Stone goes on to say: "Twitter is making a real impact around the world as people, companies, and organizations everywhere discover a powerful new way to communicate and find out what's happening—right now. With these new partnerships and this new funding, we are in a position to move more confidently toward our vision for a robust and successful Twitter, Inc."

Although Stone sounds genuine, until Twitter develops a realistic revenue stream, we’re going to be safe and not assume that a "robust and successful future"  will never entail a price.

For updates regarding this topic and other Twitter developments, follow their official blog here.