Twittering Toward Prosperity?

Can media Twitter its way to prosperity? It appears that it must find a way.

It's purely by chance that a handful of reports have crossed each other in recent days--underscoring a way out of the economic quagmire, with one scenario pointing to an oversimplified use of technology built around the notion that what consumers (especially young ones) care most about is the here and now.

The market force--let's call it Twitterization--explains what works in the emerging interactive market, although it's still not clear how it will be profitable.

While many businesses, professional organizations and academics have embraced the practice of sharing "tweets"--vital information on what they are doing and thinking at any given moment--Twitter has yet to formulate a business model. Mind you--this phenomenon is only possible in our new Web-based world! There is a logical monetization process in there somewhere, with more than one million monthly unique obsessed microbloggers, $20 million in investment money, and remarkably, an estimated $80 million valuation after just two years.



It's a game of catch-up with the tech-empowered consumer. Younger consumers have been sharing rudimentary text communications for years in social networks like MySpace and Facebook, which Twitter attempts to make more spontaneous and fluid. There are many clear signs these younger generations are already dug in, having defined their communications and reading practices of choice as word snippets: instant messages, Facebook posts, text messages, tweets.

This trend is already having an impact. A study out of King's College, London, Monday concludes that today's most intelligent 14-year-old is on par with the brightest 12-year-old in 1976, when a sampling of a different set of 800 children were tested on their comprehension of abstract scientific and mathematic concepts and other "higher levels of thinking." The test, which measures how well people deal with and sort out complex information rather than pure academic knowledge, points to changes in the way children are drilled for tests in school--as well as their having gravitated to computer games and online texting leisure activities (over good old-fashioned reading and writing) during the past 15 years. That has resulted in the emergence of abbreviated knowledge--knowing only what you must to get by, and bartering with agreeable information shorthand.

That is Twitter at its core.

That is what traditional media is up against.

While short attention-span-oriented Twitter thrives, The New York Times collapses under the weight of its own intellectual discourse. The Grey Lady, which has done as good a job--and better than most--of any major newspaper at transferring its content to its interactive Web site, is struggling to survive. Because it is costing more to operate than the revenues it generates, it will likely resort to selling assets and restructuring to avoid defaulting on its debt. Classifieds declined 28%, advertising revenues declined 13%, and overall revenues were down 8% in September. Craigslist has succeeded where newspapers have failed by making a communications function as mundane as classifieds even more valuable as an interactive social event.

A deep and protracted recession may put the final nail in the print media coffin, as underscored by the worsening metrics reported by major newspaper publishers last week. It will only get worse as businesses and consumers, under financial duress, slash routine costs including newspaper and magazine subscriptions and advertising expenses.

The ultimate dilemma: how to reconcile meaningful newspaper intelligence with the tweets, chats and texts that interactive consumers hold most dear? If Twitterization endures, it is because it already is woven into the fabric of trading bits and pieces of knowledge interactively. It has elevated the mundane to the status of the extraordinary, reshaping mass communications in the process. Twitter is all about where are you, my friend, and what are you thinking--rather than contemplating such weighty matters as alternative energy resources and how to dig out of the deep economic abyss.

It's the same challenge that confronts the television networks as they struggle to get over their static prime-time habits. When Twitter users were intrigued but bored with what television has to offer, they make up their own, as evidenced by the "tweeting" fake Don Draper of AMC's "Mad Men" fame, or live commentary from John Hodgman (of "I'm A PC" fame) from the Academy Awards.

Such television sieved through the Web is a brilliant, viral integration of social networking, user-generated and professional content, and shorthand conversation. The only obvious void is how to make advertising or e-commerce a lucrative part of the process--which is the challenge not only for Twitter, but all social networking players from MySpace to Facebook. As video game, movie, television and other video platforms integrate more live, spontaneous chat among users, Twitterization will become a natural part of the broader interactive landscape that follows us everywhere, all the time. A U.K. study this week reveals that 10% of broadband Web users remain Internet-connected while in the loo, surfing the Web, answering email and texting pals--making bathroom media a valuable platform, indeed. For now, such technology advancement pales by comparison to the timely, personally relevant, engaged exchange that comes from everyday living and special events, such as Home Depot's hurricane-related "tweets" with consumers in times of disaster.

It is brilliant viral branding that utilizes the undercurrent of Web chatter. The future of quality, relevant information--whether it comes from tweets, The New York Times op-ed page, a company Web site or a political blog--will be judged by the same quixotic standards.

If this presidential election year of branding candidates and campaigns has taught us anything, it is the power of one-to-many wrapped up in relevance and a common cause.

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