Why Twitter Is Pushing Trending Topics

If you've downloaded the latest Twitter app for the iPhone, you can't help but notice the new overlay at the top of the screen that highlights trending topics (and the occasional promoted topic.) Blogger John Gruber has coined this somewhat annoying screen-hog the "dickbar," after Twitter CEO Dick Costolo (and certainly not in any pejorative sense...) Dave Winer notes that this is a stab at bringing "instream advertising to the eyeballs of Twitter users," and, indeed, there is probably a great deal of truth to this observation. There is, of course, another possibility (and not a contradictory one, I might add.). Today my company, Edison Research, announced the latest Twitter statistics from our ongoing series of social media research studies with our partners at Arbitron. Our 2011 data indicates that although the awareness of Twitter is nearly universal (more people have heard of Twitter than could possibly access it), the growth in usage appears to have slowed somewhat, rising from 7% of Americans 12+ one year ago to 8% today. Yes, growth is growth - but everything being equal from last year's study (sample, methodology, etc.) one percentage point is lower than some might have expected, given Twitter's ubiquitous awareness and mass media presence.

2011 Edison Research Twitter Usage

Don't get me wrong - 8% of Americans 12+ is approximately 20 million persons, and there is certainly a there there. In no way am I ready to say that Twitter usage has stalled; yet, one cannot escape the fact that usage growth appears to be slowing, even before Twitter's long-awaited revenue model has found a foothold.

My theory is this: most of the social network usage that we and other sources have measured is driven primarily by Facebook usage. Facebook's symmetrical network design encourages people to share elements of their lives under the premise that those updates are only visible to people they actually know. Sharing elements of our lives with friends is a universal drive. Twitter is a different dog, clearly - based upon the data I have seen (and we have collected) about bloggers and other content creators, I suspect there is a hard cap on the percentage of Americans who have a predilection to create content for people they don't know.

I don't know that percentage, but my guess is that it's a drop higher than 8% but not significantly so. This means that future growth in Twitter usage has to come from consumers, not creators. And Twitter, for the uninitiated, is not exactly the easiest broadcast network to get in to. Twitter will continue to be an important outlet, but tools to make the service easier to consume (better topic segmentation, curation and consumption tools for the masses) will be necessary to get it over the hump.

The "dickbar" might be more than just an opening salvo in Twitter's monetization scheme; it might also be a key to Twitter's broadcast future, providing casual browsers with sensible entry points into the service that don't require interaction. What do you think? The comments are yours!