Picture this: The sitting president of the United States wins a resounding victory at the end of a long, hard-fought, and often bitter campaign. Afterward, The New York Times trumpets how many readers it got on election night, and without fail, a ton of other media outlets feverishly repeat the numbers.
Awfully ridiculous. Obviously. There's no doubt that the Times would attract a giant audience for such an important historical event. In fact, few people outside the publishing industry would bother talking about the size of that audience.
But that's more or less what happens each time Twitter becomes part of the conversation. Consider what happened election night 2012, when President Obama won re-election and Twitter put out a blog post saying, among other things, that there had been a peak of 327,000 tweets per minute that night, and that the tweet featuring the now-famous picture of the president embracing First Lady Michelle Obama had already been retweeted 455,000 times. The story, which got picked up everywhere, was presented as the latest evidence testifying to Twitter's massive adoption and growing appeal.
Four more years. pic.twitter.com/bAJE6Vom-- Barack Obama (@BarackObama) November 7, 2012
A few years ago, it might have been ludicrous to compare Twitter to The New York Times. To be sure, in many essential ways, it still is. But in one very important way, the two are the same: Both are irrevocably part of the mainstream fabric of our society. They both are embedded in our culture, and now play an essential and well-established role in finding out what's happening in the world.
As a reporter who covers Twitter, I watch the service closely. Every day, I see how the social network is used as a real-time search engine, a news service, and a place for millions of people to discuss what they just saw on TV. For a medium that didn't even exist eight years ago, Twitter's growth, to more than 230 million monthly active users, is more than impressive.
It's not Facebook-size growth, of course, but there's no doubt that Twitter has had an immense impact on our society. It's been at the heart of political revolutions, it's been the first source of national news, it's become a way for everyday people to communicate with the famous and elite. And even the pope communicates using Twitter. Plus, it's still the best way to tell the world what you had for breakfast.
While the presidential election might be an extreme example, there's no shortage of events where Twitter hits -- and announces -- new milestones. But no one should find it unexpected in late 2013 that with each big event, be it the Super Bowl, or the Boston Marathon bombing, or, yes, a presidential election, more people tweeted, and did so at higher rates than ever before. The service is growing, albeit at rates that some worry aren't fast enough, but it's been years since Twitter unequivocally became intertwined with our society.
Twitter: 'Whatever you want it to be'
These are heady times for Twitter. Even a brand-new book that lays bare the company's ugly power struggles of its early years can't steal its thunder given that tomorrow the company will go public. It's likely that it will raise as much as $1.86 billion, and will walk away from its IPO with a valuation as high as $13.9 billion.
What is Twitter? In a recent interview with CNET, Nick Bilton, the author of "Hatching Twitter" said, "I believe that [it] is whatever you want it to be, whether it's talking about yourself, or having a conversation with a celebrity, or like so many of us in the media, using it to share interesting links to news and information."
What it's not -- at least, not anymore -- is a revelation. Every day, there are a half-billion new tweets. World leaders use the service. The reach its top influencers have is staggering. Four-and-a-half years ago, actor Ashton Kutcher and CNN had a very public and very dramatic race to be first to have a million Twitter followers. That's so quaint. Now none of the top five most popular users -- Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, President Obama, and Taylor Swift -- has fewer than 36 million followers.
Nearly every TV show and movie these days seems to have a hashtag. That proves that the style-makers in Hollywood don't believe anyone needs to be educated about Twitter. "It's become ubiquitous in a culture where we're constantly exposed to these messages," said Elisa Camahort Page, the co-founder and COO of BlogHer. "It's been brought along for the ride, in every pop culture moment."
One could argue that while those in the tech world are more than aware of Twitter's utility and growth, not everyone knows just how big "big" really is. And if that's the case, then maybe there's a rationale for continuing to stand up and take notice every time the service hits a new milestone or a new celebrity joins up.
"The constant 'shock and awe' over Twitter is certainly annoying for someone like me," said Saverio Mondelli, the founder of Fav.tv, "but maybe less than you might think for the general public. People in tech have known about Twitter's powers for years -- and we've been hearing about its growth and potential too -- but I think for your average person, who have just recently...started noticing Twitter and discovering its power, it might not be as 'old news' as you'd think."
But even if that were true, Mondelli said, the time for excitement at these developments has passed. "Maybe it's just now that average people are becoming tired of hearing about how awesome Twitter is," he said, "and all the magical things it can do."
You certainly can't fault Twitter for doing whatever it can to boost its image. Especially as it got its ducks in a row in the run-up to its IPO. However, we've long moved past the time when it's worth getting worked up over a new user milestone or a new user. When the president of the United States and the Pope are both already on your service, who's left to get excited about?
I'm already won over. I know a lot of others are too, but we no longer need convincing. I'm much more interested in hearing about the all-new ways that Twitter is being used, and will be used, especially the ones that make our experience with the service, and with daily life, richer. No doubt, there are concerns that Twitter may not have that many more ways to innovate, given that, as Mondelli put it, it's a "product that's so simple." Some, like Bilton, worry that going public will put financial pressures on Twitter that will result in the service being adjusted to meet advertisers' needs, not those of users.
They could be right, but I believe Twitter, and Twitter's users, will find new ways to impress us.
Whichever way those battles go, those are the kinds of stories that will be worth touting. But is it exciting that CNN reaches millions of people every day? Not for a second. Impressive? Certainly. The same is true of Twitter, a service that is about as mainstream as one can get without being Facebook. And it's not going anywhere.