We who read (and write) blogs and play with the latest Internet Trinkets (and build them) have been called an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors, a teeny geeky minority whose audience is itself. Let me explore this notion a bit using Twitter.

In March, I gave a keynote at Web Design World in San Francisco. Frankly, it did not go that well; in particular, the crowd didn’t laugh at my jokes. Here’s one of them, more or less: “Being a Web Guy at Sun is a little intimidating. At high level strategy meetings the Chip Guys talk about what they’ll be shipping in 2009, and both the OS Guys and Java Guys talk about things a year or two out. As for us Web Guys, well... three weeks ago, I didn’t know that Twitter would become the Hot New Thing.”

It became apparent that most of them hadn’t heard of Twitter. The same joke (I’m a slow learner) fell flat at a meeting of University IT and Computer Science people a week later in Calgary. So let’s take this as evidence of the insularity and smallness—and, perhaps, unimportance—of the Internet In-crowd.

At the same time, we hear stories about the load on the Twitter servers spiking to tens of thousands of requests per second. The back of my envelope seems to be telling me that the number of people who not only know about but use Twitter is, um, enormous.

What do you make of it?



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Thijs van der Vossen (Apr 18 2007, at 01:09)

We had a similar thing recently when we mentioned excitedly to one of our clients that Ze Frank was going to do a keynote on RailsConf. This client has been part of the web industry for years, but he had no idea who we were talking about. :)

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From: evan (Apr 18 2007, at 01:29)

11,000 requests per second is misleading--that was the peak number of queued requests behind the load balancer. Hearsay says they get about 600 requests per second under normal conditions.

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From: Joe Walker (Apr 18 2007, at 01:50)

I'd suggest that the set of tech people is not the same as the set of people on Twitter (I nearly said 'twitosphere', but quickly censored myself)

I'd guess that, particularly amongst developers who need to concentrate, constant twittering is a really bad thing. So it's perhaps not surprising if there isn't a huge overlap.

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From: Boris Mann (Apr 18 2007, at 01:51)

Two things.

1. How much of the club is filled with infovores who use feedreaders and consume 100s of feeds per day?

2. This club is globally distributed, hence kind of sparse on the ground at any particular event, but large en masse

OK, a third thing.

Twitter is mobile. Globally distributed, there are a ton of people who grok SMS / text messaging. So perhaps not the best example: there will be even LESS people who have heard of web only things (and also, that in North America, esp. Canada, we are hopelessly behind in mobile).

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From: BillyG (Apr 18 2007, at 02:09)

"So let’s take this as evidence of the insularity and smallness—and, perhaps, unimportance—of the Internet In-crowd."

Oh how often this appears to be the case. Even in school, others have no clue what I'm talking about a lot of the time: to the point that I have decided to keep my mouth shut 9 times out of 10 and just stay huddled in my little cave of knowledge.

Is this what IT was destined for, jobs heading overseas and those in-the-know destined to appear snobbish (or whatever)?

I'm too busy with my feeds and classwork to troll into the Twitter ether (and a lot of other new things anymore), but at least I still know the address to the latest party! Maybe these things are just to underground for others to be aware of yet.

Anyway (it is 5am, I woke up 2 hours ago...), maybe it's the college/blackhat crowd.

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From: Phillip Fayers (Apr 18 2007, at 02:24)

What did you calculate on the back of that envelope?

How many requests equals one page? How many requests does the typical user make in a single day?

Delicious passed 1 million users in September 2006, quite a lot of people but a drop in the bucket of all internet users. There are plenty of tech savvy people I know who haven't heard of Delicious, Digg, Bloglines, Flickr, Facebook etc. The Internet In-Crowd is, as you surmised, a lot less important than it likes to think it is.

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From: alexandre (Apr 18 2007, at 03:47)

Tim,

I don't think the explanation for the number of messages per sec. is a lot of unique users. As I see it, it's a handful of people, generating a lot of messages. The Twitter model of 'broadcasting' information does that. Once a Scoble posts something, it goes to hundreds (if not thousands at this point) of people.

As with most "Web 2.0" properties, Twitter relies on 1% of its users to generate 99% of its content, while the rest of the users act merely as an "audience".

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From: MW (Apr 18 2007, at 04:25)

I think there are (at least) two factors at play. Firstly, just how easy it is to underestimate just how many people are involved, either directly or tangentially, in any technology area. Secondly, how specialised many professionals become in real-world careers.

Many knowledgeable people don't have the time or inclination to read blogs and instead rely on (slightly!) more traditional news sources. This is directly relevant to awareness *and* usage of twitter as an extension of blogging. Awareness will inevitably spread over time if the relevant idea has longevity. This may sound obvious, but it is easy to forget as a member of certain (sometimes introspective) online villages. Also, the growing numbers of non-English speaking development communities shouldn't be forgotten.

It is always enlightening to see the reaction of any particular open-source community when a related novel (and unexpected) project is discovered to have been developed in isolation of that community.

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From: ficke (Apr 18 2007, at 04:56)

It will be interesting to see what Twitter's traffic is like after a few more months. I know a lot of people who have signed up to try it out and abandon immediately. The real measure of it's success is how many people are subscribed to other people's "twitters" no the traffic they're seeing.

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From: Jeremy Cherfas (Apr 18 2007, at 05:06)

And I'm still amazed at how many "web-savvy" people blank when I mention Flickr.

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From: Robert 'Groby' Blum (Apr 18 2007, at 05:25)

The Twitter requests? It's almost all Dave Winer ;)

Well, he's certainly prolific, but what I really mean by that is it's people like Dave, who explore using Twitter programatically. Having the NYT on there. There's a weather Twitter. I'm sure there are tons of services I've never heard of on twitter. That's where I'd imagine a large part of those requests originate.

Of course, that's all wild speculation - I wish I could have a look at their server logs :)

Oh, and isn't Twitter out and Jaiku in? (I swear, sometimes the web feels like high school all over...)

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From: mike (Apr 18 2007, at 05:29)

If TechCrunch is any benchmark for web2.0 popularity, it claims to have 370K subscribers through their FeedBurner stats. Even discounting that by some factor, it would suggest there is some sizable audience.

But I wouldn't assume that all those interested in new web things have a CS or IT background. In my environment the techies don't care about Twitter and all the important messages being sent through it.

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From: Rafe (Apr 18 2007, at 06:21)

People poll Twitter's servers very frequently.

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From: Jeremy Dunck (Apr 18 2007, at 06:40)

Tough to say.

There's this the whole "future is not evenly distributed" meme [0] and then there's small world. Those suggest that if you told the same group the same joke a month later, you'd get some laughs. Or maybe the joke just sucks. :) How many people attend (and can relate to) high pay-grade strategy meetings?

But it could just be Bubble 2.0 fatigue. [2]

[0]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity#Accelerating_change

[1]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_world_phenomenon

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small-world_network

[2]

http://bubble20.blogspot.com/

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From: Chris Norris (Apr 18 2007, at 07:07)

I think the club is much smaller than we think. I'm always amazed when I talk to another developer and just mention something that, say, Joel Spolsky said in an essay and they don't have the faintest clue who I'm talking about.

I think there's a group of developers who read lots of RSS feeds and keep up on the latest happenings as a sort of hobby. I do it. I've never used Twitter (and don't yet have any desire to) but I read about it all the time. People can't shut up about it. I only know one person that actually uses it, though.

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From: Dan Davies Brackett (Apr 18 2007, at 07:27)

This is another aspect of the "everyone is famous to 15 people" side of the internet, I think. Orkut is popular -- but only in Brazil. Twitter is popular -- but only among the twitterati. The internet unites people by interest rather than by location, so it's easy for a community to forget that the world doesn't end at its horizon.

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From: Marcus (Apr 18 2007, at 08:49)

I have experienced the same thing. No one I know has heard of Twitter, including many in the tech savvy crowd. The same holds true, as someone else said, of Flickr.

Actually, I think that's the beautiful thing, and something that isn't ingrained in us yet: Google's success and visibility notwithstanding, the Internet is ingrained in the daily lives of more people than ever. Excellent watershed points were names that everyone _has_ heard of, YouTube and MySpace. But those big names blur the reality that with such explosive growth of Internet usage, even being a "small" player can be pretty freaking big.

There's a tendency to look at this as a zero-sum game, yet organic growth and lack of complete convergence is what is really leaving the door open to innovation by new people and the continual shift from old to new. Sure, monopolies are established. But there are still huge audiences for new players.

Even Google should beware the backlash and the constant creation of new _small_ ideas that find their way into the psyche. Microsoft is finding out the harsh lesson that computer users want to have fun more than they actually want to work or even socialize (although socializing tends to be closer to fun than most other things). "The cream of the crop of crop of today is the stinking cheese of tomorrow" ;-D

Hmmm, so this comment went all over the place and never finalized a point. *sigh*. Oh wait, no, that cream of the crop point was a pretty good wrap up to all the randomness, heh.

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From: Marius (Apr 18 2007, at 11:06)

Even Slashdot is unknown to a lot of "IT" people. They're usually the same who won't touch the old "Java"-thingy they've heard about, but prefer .Net :-(

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From: Dan Sickles (Apr 18 2007, at 14:20)

The age differnce of the IT folks vs Twitterers might be enlightening.

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From: slgraffoo (Apr 18 2007, at 15:55)

Ok. I bit. I didn't know Twitter either and I work in the Java and Web world.

So I looked it up. omg. Are you serious? Its like verbal internet voyeurism.

I think that if they had known what Twitter was, half of them might have groaned instead of laughed...like with MySpace. The one I read was all about some whiny stay-at-home mom talking about how she got to take a nap in the middle of the day and when she had to pick up the kid(s). I don't see how most tech people would want to make time to spend on reading things like that. At least with blogs, you get a decent percent chance of it being interesting and provoking some challenging thought.

I did agree with the previous comment about developers needing focus may steer away from distracting technologies such as Twitter and with the comment about being famous to 15 people. Most likely, those 15 are going to be famous within that group as well.

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From: Michael Neale (Apr 18 2007, at 16:00)

I wouldn't get too excited, I believe they are talking about load spikes.

Even if it was 100 000 users, perhaps even a million, its a big world, thats still a small fraction. Sometimes our perspective gets skewed, the internet can make the world seem smaller then it really is in some ways.

Hmm... tried to sumbit this a few times. I can't be sure, but the error screen looks like a random excuse generator. If it is, very amusing.

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From: Dustin (Apr 18 2007, at 16:30)

One of the most striking things I have found running an internet business is that there are SO MANY people out there. I cater to a small(ish) niche, yet even there there are tons of new people finding me every day. I thought it would slow down, and maybe it has a little, but not really. They just keep coming!

So just because Twitter has become very popular doesn't mean that most people know about it. There are just TOO MANY PEOPLE online. It's great =).

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From: Simon Willison (Apr 18 2007, at 18:11)

slgraffoo: you don't read Twitters from strangers; you read them from people you know. It's a mechanism for keeping in touch with your friends. That's why it's popular, and also why it's so hard to scale.

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From: pauldwaite (Apr 19 2007, at 02:20)

> At the same time, we hear stories about the load on the Twitter servers spiking to tens of thousands of requests per second. The back of my envelope seems to be telling me that the number of people who not only know about but use Twitter is, um, enormous.

Surely it could be just a reasonable sized user base updating it *all the fricking time*, and people/software (e.g. Twitterrific, or whatever it's called) polling it all the time.

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