Tweets from the Edge: The Ins and Outs (and Ups and Downs) of Twitter

3/27/09Follow @wroush

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regrets, music and movie reviews, life’s little triumphs and defeats, even breaking news—the first pictures of the splashdown of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River came from a camera-phone owner using Twitpic (a Twitter-based photo-sharing service).

There is one question about Twitter I can’t answer, and that’s whether the company will ever find a way to make money on the platform. (Its venture investors must hope so. Boston’s Spark Capital, New York’s Union Square Ventures, Seattle’s Bezos Expeditions, and Japan’s Digital Garage have together poured more than $22 million into Twitter.) There was word in the Wall Street Journal this week that Twitter plans to introduce paid commercial accounts that would offer more features than free accounts. But it wasn’t clear from the WSJ article when this might happen, or what the extra features might be.

All I can say about this is that if Twitter does create a class of grownup, paying customers, it had better be ready to provide them with grownup customer support. Right now Twitter’s help desk is essentially useless. Here at Xconomy, I’ve been working for more than a month to get Twitter to evict a squatter who set up a Twitter account under the name “Xconomy.” My first help ticket, submitted February 27, went unanswered for more than three weeks. I eventually learned that the issue had been marked in Twitter’s help system as resolved—but when I read the accompanying note, I discovered that Twitter had merely given up. “Twitter Support is closing older tickets in order to get an accurate idea of current problems,” said the cheery note. “Due to a ticket backlog, Twitter Support may’ve been unable to respond to your request in a timely manner. Our apologies!”

I certainly understand the pressure of laboring under a huge queue of messages. Heck, just a few weeks ago, I wrote a column about my own decision to declare e-mail bankruptcy and start fresh with an empty inbox. But if you’re a tech company, I don’t think that just throwing out all your old help requests is an effective way to deal with your backlog.

Adding to my annoyance, Twitter also closed out my second help request without actually resolving it. This time their “solution” was to send me a couple of automatically generated e-mail messages that picked up on keywords in my ticket but had nothing to do with my actual problem. Twitter, if you’re listening: Now would be a good time to smooth this all out, before I get really ticked off.

The customer-support issue leads to a bigger question. Given that Twitter, the company, has no clear path to monetization and no real record of reliability or responsiveness, I think it’s legitimate to wonder how long Twitter, the social phenomenon, can keep gaining momentum. If tweeting is truly fundamental—that is, if Internet users start to think of it as a basic feature of the Internet comparable to e-mail or instant messaging, as I believe many already do—then it may turn out to be too important to leave to Twitter. The Internet community has well-established ways of dealing with such situations: either the original owner of the technology hands control over to a non-profit standards body, or the open source community creates a non-commercial equivalent and everyone switches. It will be interesting to see which of these happens with Twitter.

Meanwhile, Twitter’s millions of users will keep tweeting away. It’s too addictive to stop. (If you want to get serious about it, check out this blog post yesterday from Don Dodge, about Twitter tips from Guy Kawasaki, who has 94,000 followers.) So try it out—and send a 140-character postcard my way.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.workstrategies.com Terry Del Percio

    This is a terrific Twitter overview for folks who are just beginning. It’s honest and clear. Thanks.

  • http://danweinreb.org/blog Daniel Weinreb

    A skeptical look at Twitter, worth seeing for humor value:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN2HAroA12w&feature=player_embedded

  • http://scottmoroney.typepad.com Scott Moroney

    If used in the spirit you describe, Twitter is a great addition to how we communicate. I have ~160 followers and about the same number following me. I find them very interesting and learn a great deal from their expertise and interests.

    I feel the number one mistake people make with Twitter is they get discouraged. Watch the video on the home page and you will understand the basics and take off from that point.

    Twitter in some form is here to stay, much like websites and mobile phones. More and more Twitter will come off the web and into the mobile environment for more of us “non I-Phone” folks. Blackberry, what are you waiting for with Twitter? Or is it Twitter that is stalling?

    @scottmoroney