No other social networking site has gotten as much hype in the past few months as Twitter. Time magazine  recently proclaimed that Twitter is going to change the way we live. Really? It does provide real-time insight and updates from anyone we care to “follow.” And it satisfies our innate desire to stay connected. Even if that “connection” means learning your friend is late for work or that his dog snores at night.
In the first five months of 2009, Twitter gained the type of hockey-stick growth  that gets any marketer’s attention. Everyone was talking about the newest , hanging on every 140-character tweet from Ashton/Oprah/CNN, driving huge growth in Twitter’s user base and 19 million unique U.S. visitors per month.
In recent weeks, however, a few studies have come out suggesting Twitter’s popularity may be difficult to sustain. Compete  recently posted their May, 2009 statistics, showing only a 1.4% growth in unique visitors. This compares to Facebook, where traffic to the main site increased 8% in the same period. The Compete data came on the heels of a study from Nielsen  which found a 40% retention rate. 60% of Twitter users create a profile, make at least one update, and then go silent after one month.
Twitter’s astronomical growth wasn’t gong to continue forever. What may be most troubling, however, was a report in Harvard Business Review . Researchers there analyzed data from over 300,000 users in a one-month period and found that 10% of the audience was generating over 90% of the “tweets.” And median number of lifetime tweets per user? One.
Does this mean the sky is beginning to fall in Twitterville?
Certainly not for social media pundits, authors, consultants, entertainers, and pro athletes. They are signing up for Twitter in droves, and Twitter recently announced a new service  to verify the identities of celebrity profiles. Twitter seems to have a growing collection of “power twitterers” – the 10% of users generating 90% of the content. Under this scenario, Twitter seems to be less about connecting with friends and more about building a real-time PR and information channel. This doesn’t mean Twitter is losing its mainstream appeal. But it does suggest Twitter will never achieve mainstream participation. Most visitors to the site seem content to remain as Twitter lurkers rather than active participants in the dialogue.
So Twitter’s growth and largest monetization opportunity will come from those individuals with an opinion to share and a reasonably well-developed network of social/professional contacts or fans. This seems to be in sharp contrast to Facebook, where the growth has largely been the organic result of everyday people actually looking to connect with one another. Humans can only process so much input from so many people from so many different facets of our life. Eventually the steady stream of tweets on top of our e-mails, IM messages, Facebook updates, text messages, in-person conversations and phone calls becomes too much to process. We expend so much energy “connecting” we can’t get anything done, activating our “fight or flight” response. Without a viable fight-back alternative (short of chucking your computer and smart phone out the window), most users just flee the scene.
Twitter’s hockey-stick growth is certainly impressive, but it seems the buzz around Twitter was generated by the “non-everyday” people who can create widespread interest in new technology. Twitter seems perfectly suited to anyone looking to share (read: promote) their opinions, insights, rants, agenda, or content. It’s not about fostering connections, it’s about generating publicity. Journalists, writers, bloggers, media, politicians, and celebrities – those that are in the business of making, reporting, or commenting on the news thrive on Twitter and likely make up most of the 10% power twitters. And with so many influential people promoting Twitter through all forms of traditional media, its popularity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Naturally, everyone else checked out Twitter just to see what all the fuss is about. And after getting their fill of promotional messages and updates on what their friend had for dinner, the data would suggest that fewer and fewer are finding a good reason to stay.