The Status of Statuses

Wed, Oct 21, 2009 - 10:16pm -- Isaac Sukin

As the maintainer of the Facebook-style Statuses module for the Drupal content management system, I like to read around the web and see what kinds of statistics and innovations I can find on comparable systems. This week, there was a gold mine that indicates that the "status movement" is going to grow its already expansive online presence exponentially.

The first update we found out about caused a lot of stir in the technology world: Bing announced deals with Facebook and Twitter to incorporate Facebook status updates as well as Tweets from Twitter into their search results. Was Microsoft one-upping Google, the pundits asked? This is big, they say. This is real-time. This is what people think right now. This could change search.

And then, a few hours later, Google announced their own search deal with Twitter. Both search engines will show Tweets above or next to the search results, and will use the information to determine the relevance of articles around the web to the hottest topics; Bing is also planning something similar to Twitter's Trending Topics, which shows the most popular terms being tweeted at the moment.

So two of the biggest tech companies in the world -- in fact, two of the biggest companies in the world -- are jumping on the status update bandwagon. Clearly the movement is here to stay, not to mention that Facebook is one of the largest web properties in the world (right up there with Google and Microsoft properties according to Alexa and Quantcast). Facebook is also one of the "stickiest" sites around, meaning users stay on it for an incredible amount of time, and Google and Bing could benefit from the inherent interest of pointless babble.

Twitter is also one of the largest web properties in the world, chalking up in the top 15 sites by most estimates. However, Twitter's almost 18 million users pales in comparison to Facebook's mind-boggling 300 million. I don't think I need to point out the significance of the fact that two of the largest and most engaging sites on the web are the ones whose foundation is the kind of status update that they invented, each in their own way. But perhaps a statistic will make it clear: Facebook now has 45 million status updates a day. Wow.

There is, of course, an important distinction between them: Twitter is much more public, and it has the most use as a business tool, whereas Facebook is more of a place to chatter with friends. But for our purposes, the important part is the technology behind them.

Of course, Google hasn't made a deal with Facebook -- at least, not yet. However, not to be outdone, they announced "Social Search": a new feature that can pull photos from Flickr and information from other popular sites to display alongside standard search results. Not only that, but it can use social networking accounts connected to your Google Profile to show you results from your friends on those networks as well. This could be a back-door to Facebook integration as well -- not to mention many other sites. Depending on how Social Search plays out, this could go very well for Google.

The most exciting part for me, though, is that it's not just the Facebook/Twitter juggernauts that are driving statuses forward. A new Pew study determined that 19% of internet users use some form of status updates. That means there is a large constituency of smaller sites driving up that number -- and your site can be one of them. That 19% is also astounding growth from less than a year ago, when another Pew study found that 11% of internet users use status updates. That means statuses are coming to be a feature that users expect in a site -- something intuitive and friendly that allows them to express how they feel with the community on your site.

In her article "Why Charging for Online Content (Mostly) Won't Work," senior VP of Paltalk Judith Shapiro makes the case that the nature of the internet means that everything online is driven by the quality of content and community. There are only two ways to make money online, she says: one is to produce really, really high-quality content like the Wall Street Journal. Sites that can do this are few and far between, and they are the only ones that can profit from closed-garden models (that is, models where users pay for subscriptions to content). The other way to profit online is to build a community and serve ads. This model is extremely effective because a community builds upon itself and becomes a captive audience that keeps coming back to engage and contribute. Managed correctly, a community can make your company look good as well as drive a lot of income in a world where users get to choose what content they want to read from a wide selection. If your users choose to participate in your community, you're already halfway there.

So clearly, there are a lot of opportunities to use statuses to make your site more able to monetize. Microsoft and Google certainly think so. As the creator and maintainer of the Facebook-style Statuses module for the Drupal content management system, I'm very excited about the direction of this technology as well. If recent trends are any indication, you should be too.