My friend Adam wrote this week that Twitter’s growth may be slowing and that he doesn’t think Twitter will ever be truly mainstream. I disagree, and have two reasons to do so: the market penetration of Twitter is still primed for explosive growth, and there will be more Tiger Woods-like incidents. These two trends point to continued explosive growth for Twitter, and an eventual crossing the chasm into the mainstream.
Twitter’s growth is indeed slowing, but it is doing so off of an exponential base — there’s no way for the service to keep growing at 300%+ a year when the base of users has reached a mass market (20m+). Yet don’t forget that only about 10% of the US Population has used Twitter. There are some great statistics that provide additional depth about Twitter users today, but the facts are that these users are early adopters or technovangelists: they are not Geoffrey Moore’s Main Street users. Twitter has a lot of untapped growth potential still, and the users who will join are the users who will be using new clients (on their television, in their search engine, and on their phone) without realizing that they are using Twitter as a new source, because it will have become an entirely new thing: a “crowdsourced” media service to replace the Associated Press or the United Press International, both services which have now faded or become largely irrelevant.
Enter the Tiger Woods incident. Why did it take 12 hours for the Florida Highway Patrol to report this incident? Why did ESPN and CNN wait for over an hour to report the incident after it broke on Twitter? Easy — the answer is that they were trying to fact-check a complicated story and didn’t want to report the results until they were sure they had something to say. In the meanwhile, Twitter was lighting up with activity, and the various theories over why he had the accident crystalized into reports that the mainstream media had to respond to, whether they liked it or not. Is it fair to speculate whether it was a potential domestic violence incident? Is it fair to speculate whether Woods was drinking? The fact is that he is a public figure, and the news about him spread like wildfire. A lot of that news spread via Twitter.
You might say, “isn’t this just like the USAir incident, where Twitter reported the news before the major networks?” Not quite. This was a lot less public incident, with arguably the World’s most famous athlete, that became public due to the public speculation of thousands (hundreds of thousands) of people on Twitter. The story became a story because it was reported about, discussed, and spread on Twitter. This won’t be the last news story to be reported this way by Twitter: I wonder whether we will look back and say it was one of the first to be reported on this way.
Finally, what does this mean for crowd-sourced news, and for the news in general? You may not like Twitter, but this incident proves that it’s already a mainstream news source, if not a mainstream news client, for much of the US. The future undoubtedly belongs to clients that source information from many sources (with attribution — think Google News as a model). Twitter will have crossed the chasm when Twitter-sourced news shows up in other channels with reporting and attribution. This raises the question of whether any reporters are already producing video, sourcing it and sharing it via Twitter, and then crossing over to mainstream news. CNN’s iReport may not have worked exactly, but it’s this kind of model (albeit more curated) that will produce the news (and entertainment) of the future.