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Silicon Valley is abuzz over a new mini-blogging service for mobile phones that some predict will be a mass-market hit with the reach of a YouTube or MySpace.
Over the past two weeks, Twitter has attracted the sort of hyperbole the Valley reserves for its next internet darling – though such self-reinforcing adulation also led to dotcom mania.
Jonathan Schwartz, chief executive of Sun Microsystems, singled Twitter out at the end of last week as the latest hit from the post-YouTube generation of “viral” internet applications that have the potential to attract massive online audiences.
The internet has “become so consumerised that social phenomena can take off like lightning”, he said. Warning against the temptation to reject Twitter as a flash in the pan, Mr Schwartz added: “YouTube was funny until it was worth $1.65bn to someone,” a reference to Google’s purchase of the company last year.
“This is the first application that people have got excited about since Flickr came out,” said Ross Mayfield, a Valley entrepreneur, comparing it to a popular photo-sharing site bought by Yahoo in 2005. “I don’t think it will be the next YouTube – but I do think it will gain wide adoption,” he said.
Users of Twitter post short messages – up to 140 characters – that can be viewed either on a website or on mobile phones. “Twitter probably wouldn’t have existed before blogging, when people learned to be more transparent,” Mr Mayfield added.
Though launched publicly last summer, use of Twitter started to take off in the middle of March after it was adopted by technology bloggers attending the South by Southwest conference in Texas. As people like Mr Mayfield lauded the service on their blogs, interest spread quickly among the Valley’s key opinion-formers.
The sudden popularity of Twitter has seen the number of messages posted on its site jump from 20,000 to 70,000 a day, said Biz Stone of Obvious, the internet company which started the service. According to HitWise, which measures web traffic, use of the service jumped by 55 per cent the week after the conference, though it said Twitter was “still very niche” and had yet to reach the mass market.
The sudden jump in use has put a strain on Twitter’s servers, and the service has become “sluggish” as a result, said Mr Stone. That could point to the sort of difficulties that accompanied the sudden popularity four years ago of Friendster, the first widely used online social networking service. As it struggled to build the technological infrastructure capable of keeping up with demand, users tired of its patchy service and eventually turned to other sites like MySpace.
“We’ve seen the Friendster experience and we don’t want that to happen,” said Mr Stone. Twitter’s development team had now stopped adding new features to the service so that it could focus all its attention on coping with the surge in traffic, he said.