When Will (Post-Iran) Twitter Grow a Business Model?

Last Updated Jun 17, 2009 2:09 PM EDT

One perplexing difficulty we face here at Bnet as we document Twitter's prominent role the events unfolding in Iran is the young company's utter lack of any apparent business model. As my colleague Erik Sherman outlines in a new post, just catching a wave -- even as big a one as this current spike in a news cycle -- will not necessarily mean much in the long run for developing a successful company.

It has to be a heady moment for the social media outfit to have the U.S. State Department weighing in on when Twitter should schedule its routine maintenance or CNN's "Iran Desk" is revealed to be filled with people at their desks with laptops trying to separate fact from rumor via the Tweet stream flowing now like a mighty river out of Iran.

But, once the current frenzy subsides, how will Twitter capitalize on all of its new brand equity? The company's founders, like many others trying to build businesses in the Web 2.0 space, don't like advertising. Fair enough, there's one steady stream of potential revenue crossed off the list.

Naturally, Twitter cannot charge users for its service, that birdy has long since flown from the coop. No real opportunity to charge for content here.

Hmmm. This is getting a bit dicey, but there still are some opportunities to grow a business model around real-time search and metrics. If Twitter becomes the pre-eminent search engine for the ephemera flowing across its screens, I can see monetization opportunities, a la Google's lucrative model. So that would appear to be one definite possibility.

(As Bnet's Cathy Taylor noted recently, it's logical to assume that Google may challenge Twitter to control real-time search, eventually.)

Meanwhile, there may be another healthy market to be tapped by collecting, sorting, analyzing, and providing reliable analytics about all of this real-time activity by real people in the real world. Companies will pay for that.

Conversations around these kinds of business models will no doubt be taking place inside Twitter and the other social media services (YouTube, Facebook, etc.) once the current feeding frenzy in Iran begins to wind down.

There is no sign of any falloff in activity yet, however. Twitter's top trending topic, #IranElection, has been posted to 45,503 times since I began writing this piece around 45 minutes ago. Many posters are providing dramatic photos via TwitPics.

As has been the case for days now, however, much of the overall activity on Twitter involves RTs and other messages generated by users who are not inside Iran itself, but have become emotionally involved in the drama. Thus, it is becoming more difficult for journalists and others monitoring Twitter to locate anf follow Tweets from those on the ground in Tehran and other cities where the demonstrations are taking place.

(In a related development last night, surely one of the lowest moments in CNN's checkered history of billing itself as a reliable news source occurred on the show "A.C. 360." After stressing that he had no correspondent in the field who was able to confirm any of the rumors coming across his desk about Iran, host Anderson Cooper then proceeded to broadcast those rumors.
(Next, Cooper connected with his chief correspondent in Iran, who from his five-star hotel room well away from the action, explained why he wasn't out covering the story. The Iranian goverment had not actually prevented him from going to the demonstrations, he stated, but one official had warned him that the government could not protect his "safety" if he chose to go out with a camera into the streets.
(Generations of journalists who have braved far worse threats than those presented by the thugs with batons prowling Tehran's crowded streets turned over in their graves at that one! With such tepid commitment to covering a story as that displayed by the likes of CNN, it is little wonder that it is the "wisdom of the crowds" that is now driving the news cycle.)
The only good thing I can say about CNN is that they have a business model. This kind of crisis, even if they don't provide any original coverage, creates traffic spikes just like those over at Twitter. The difference is that for CNN, the ad revenue is flowing in, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching!

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.