It’s been widely reported this week that Twitter would begin charging corporate customers. The rumor started with Twitter’s Biz Stone saying in Marketing magazine, “We are noticing more companies using Twitter and individuals following them. We can identify ways to make this experience even more valuable and charge for commercial accounts.” A subtext of the coverage is that companies interviewed didn’t necessarily think they’d pay for Twitter if they had to pay to use it. It was easy to envision a scenario in which, even though the charge would only be made to corporations who use the microblogging service, the adoption of a pay-per-use model could somewhere down the line end the popularity of Twitter, a slippery slope leading from first making some users subscribe and then, eventually, all.
Stone responded to the coverage by posting a note on Twitter’s blog, noting that the microblogging service was indeed exploring monetization opportunities.
“However,” wrote Stone, “it's important to note that whatever we come up with, Twitter will remain free to use by everyone—individuals, companies, celebrities, etc. What we're thinking about is adding value in places where we are already seeing traction, not imposing fees on existing services. We are still very early in the idea stage and we don't have anything to share just yet despite a recent surge in speculation. When we do, we'll be sure to let you know.”
While Twitter usage – and media coverage – continues to be through the roof, the service itself has proven difficult to monetize, which is of course the common Web 2.0 theme. (Though in all fairness, a lot of media coverage is not about the service itself, but tends towards meta-discourses about the Tweeters themselves.)
Twitter might have the traction to charge customers for use, but it probably wouldn’t work, no matter how many bloggers say they would hypothetically pay, in that hypothetical world where they'd hypothetically have to.
Whether Twitter will be transient like Tamagotchi or as long-lived as texting remains to be seen. How the service is monetized will be interesting, because it’s hard to imagine successfully integrating advertising onto its interface. And any kind of subscription model would without a doubt kill it, as competitors could release similar code for free.
The surest way to generate revenue would be follow the model of TV and phone services, in which broadband services charge per feature. Want the social networking plan? It costs an extra two bucks a month. Yeah, this would be ridiculous, and my economic sophistication stops at Adam Smith, age 8.
But it does seem reasonable to think that Web 2.0 and beyond will prove eventually emenintely profitable. Perhaps by the time it does Moore's Law will have dropped computer and broadband prices so low to counterbalance the fact that there's still a good chance, we'll have to pay something for all these services we now get 'for free.'