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Twitter turns 5, but how will it survive?

Twitter's growth has been 'astounding,' but analysts say the one-trick pony needs to learn new tricks to survive the decade

March 21, 2011 07:25 PM ET

Computerworld - As Twitter hits its fifth birthday, industry analysts wonder where the company will go from here.

Twitter is one of the most popular and talked-about Internet companies out there. That's no mean feat for a venture that was a fledgling business during a tough economy, and at a time when many major companies were vying for attention and online time.

Though Twitter is just five years old, its users now send more than 140 million tweets of 140 characters or fewer each day, which adds up to a billion Tweets every eight days, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote in a blog post today.

Stone also noted that while it took about 18 months to sign up the first 500,000 accounts, Twitter now adds close to 500,000 accounts every day.

If that's not enough proof that Twitter has come a long way in a short time, it's increasingly clear that the microblogging site is far from a place where people only share their thoughts about their favorite sandwiches or just tweet to hear the virtual sound of their own digital voices.

Just over a week ago, Twitter became a lifeline during the natural disasters that rocked Japan. It served the same function during the massive earthquakes in Chile and Haiti last year.

The site also acted as a key communication tool during the 2009 government crackdown on protestors in Iran, and when a US Airways plane made an emergency landing in New York's Hudson River.

"In terms of visibility and impact, Twitter has been very impressive," said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group. "It's been tied to revolutions and elections. And it's changed the way a relatively large number of people communicate.... It's a new idea: communicating one to many."

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, called Twitter's rise in the social media world "astounding."

"Tweets matter," said Olds. "For a deceptively simple and innocuous application, it's had quite an impact on the world. It has been an outlet for people rebelling against repressive regimes, and a channel politicians have used to communicate with their followers."

"Plus," he added, "it's a great mechanism that celebs can use to embarrass themselves. What's not to like?"

With the first five years having gone well, what should users expect out of Twitter in the next five?

In a social media market where things are constantly evolving, that's a tough question. However, Olds and Enderle said Twitter needs to expand its services to fend off Facebook or the next round of up-and-comers in the social networking world.

"I would expect to see Twitter become more integrated into other social networks, and perhaps even become the default method that many people use to update their online activities," Olds said. "But Twitter is still kind of a one-trick pony these days and it either needs to learn more tricks or make sure that it does its single task supremely well."

Enderle said for Twitter to survive the decade, it needs to do a better job of keeping users on its site longer and to get more people tweeting and reading tweets.

Last year, a study from RJMetrics, which develops online metric analysis software, showed that only 17% of all Twitter accounts were active in December 2009. That's down from more than 70% in early 2007, when Twitter was a fledgling company with far fewer users.

"With the low loyalty numbers, there's a risk of being displaced," Enderle said. "They need to become a much more permanent part of our life."

"If they don't, they likely won't survive the decade," he said. "It would be relatively easy to come up with something that does a lot of what they do, and it's too easy for users to switch."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at Twitter @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed Gaudin RSS. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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