The Pope. President Obama. Queen Elizabeth. Oprah. You.
When Twitter started seven years ago as an obscure medium for geeks, critics dismissed it as an exercise in narcissism. Some thought it would be as intriguing as watching people gaze at their bellybuttons. But it quickly matured into a worldwide messaging service used by everyone from heads of state to revolutionaries to companies trying to hawk products.
Now, Twitter is taking the next critical step in its evolution — selling stock to the public. It promises to be the most hyped and scrutinized initial public offerings since Facebook’s Wall Street debut in May 2012. To be successful, the company will need to become an advertising behemoth and prove that the same service that has already helped change the course of history can also make money.
Twitter quietly slipped out news of its plan to go public in a tweet Thursday afternoon. By the next morning, nearly 14,000 of Twitter’s 200 million users had retransmitted the message.
“Twitter epitomizes the revolution of social media ... more than Facebook, more than YouTube,” says Fordham University communications professor Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” “It caters to the immediacy, the equality of all users.”
And yet, Twitter isn’t that big. Only about 15 percent of Americans say they’ve ever used Twitter, according to an August poll by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. That’s up from 9 percent in June 2010. At the time of Facebook’s IPO, an AP-CNBC poll found that 56 percent of Americans said they had pages on Facebook. Some 17 percent said they used the site several times a day.
Twitter’s 200 million global users represent about one-sixth of Facebook’s 1.16 billion.
Even so, Twitter generates more news than Facebook. A big part of that is its public nature, Levinson says. With their messages of 140 characters or less, most people tweet openly, for better or for worse, allowing the world a glimpse at their thoughts. Facebook, in contrast, gives its users a plethora of controls to hide or show posts to as many or as few people as they’d like. That means many users share updates only with people they already know.
“You can rub elbows with famous people instantly,” Levinson says. “That’s what makes communication in the 21st century radically different from any time in the past. It wasn’t until Twitter that the combination of speed and access to anyone became available for everyone.”