The Best-Case Scenario for Twitter

Twitter would have a durable position as the most powerful live medium in the post-broadcast TV age.
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Twitter's shares keep climbing this morning, far above the price set by the company's bankers, as it prepares to debut on the New York Stock Exchange. This is an IPO with all the trumpets and glitter those three letters conjure. 

But as the price climbs past $20 and $30 and $40, the revenue and profit expectations for the company do, too. To justify the excitement, analysts like RBC Capital Markets' Mark Mahaney and Sun Trust's Robert Peck say Twitter will have to become a utility. But what kind?

On CNBC this morning, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo trotted out a new line for the company's IPO: He called Twitter "the indispensable companion to life in the moment."

Ever Finer Slices of the Moment

"In the moment" has two key meanings here, I think. 

One is easy to parse: Twitter is live! It's like TV; it pairs well with TV. Sometimes, people get on the service and just say, "Hello?" to see who is out there. It's like a chatroom with no edges. Twitter is what Second Life promised to be: the Internet with people. 

But which people? And that's the other meaning of "in the moment." Facebook is designed to capture both your offline and online social networks. They want to know who *all* your friends are. Facebook's design literally extends back in time to birth. 

Twitter's model is different. It's for the people that matter to you now. Those could be colleagues or new friends who share similar interests. Twitter doesn't care if you add your besties from fourth grade. And you can create an instant ephemeral network with a hashtag. Hit # and you've created another, even finer slice of the moment. 

So, on Twitter, you commit to nowness in content and network.

The Now Network

What does that do for you? 

For one, the social graph that Twitter generates might be more valuable than others. I also have a creeping suspicion that it looks more like LinkedIn's than Facebook's. 

Second, Facebook, filled up with people from all your previous walks in life, has to algorithmically determine what to show you in a stream. That's a tough task.

Twitter, by contrast, has a base of people who are more likely to show you what you're interested in now, no machine-logic necessary. (Of course, this is the bull case for Twitter; it's pretty easy to imagine that Facebook's machine gets so good that it simply overruns every other social network.)

And showing you what you want to see is the name of the game. Because the more you look, the more ads you can be shown.

For heavy users, Twitter is very, very good at bringing us back. I've questioned whether that will extend to a broader base of people, but in the megahappy scenario, everyone finds his or her now-network.

In that case, with "mobile eating the world," as analyst Benedict Evans contends, Twitter will be the best at fulfilling your wishes when you execute the most important action in media: when you hook your pinkie, ring, and middle fingers around the back of a phone, and pull down with your thumb to load new content.

In the best-case scenario, Twitter will show you more interesting stuff than anyone else, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, wherever you are, and whatever you want to talk about. Twitter would have a durable position as the most powerful live medium in the post-broadcast TV age.

That's the best-case scenario for Twitter, and—at least in the media and tech bubbles—it seems possible. And surely that must be worth billions of dollars, no?

Caveat lector: None of this constitutes investment advice. For a solid bear case, read Farhad Manjoo at the Wall Street Journal.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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