2009: the Year of Twitter and Facebook

Twitter, fueled by smartphones and online bursts of 140 characters, soared to lofty heights over the past year while Facebook eclipsed MySpace to become the world's leading social network.

"Those are the big winners," said Jason Keath, a North Carolina-based social media consultant and founder of SocialFresh.com, an organizer of social media conferences. "Facebook more or less tripled their size this year."

"Twitter grew immensely," added Keath. "I think they were somewhere around maybe two to four million users at the beginning of the year. Now they're near 40 million."

With 350 million members, "if Facebook was a country it would be the fourth most populous nation," said Scott Stanzel, a former deputy press secretary to president George W. Bush who has also worked for software giant Microsoft.

"Going back one year ago I don't think people would have thought Twitter would have had the influence it's had," added Stanzel, who now runs Stanzel Communications, a Seattle-based public relations consulting firm that offers social media planning among its services.

"It was gaining popularity but it has really exploded this year and it's done so in a way that's become incredibly pervasive," he said.

Twitter has reportedly spurned takeover offers worth hundreds of millions of dollars from Google and Facebook, and its influence as a communications and news-breaking tool has been validated in a number of ways over the past year.

In June, the State Department asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance on the service because it was being used by protestors angered by the results of Iran's disputed presidential election.

More recently, Google and Microsoft began integrating Twitter messages into their respective search engines, a new feature described as real-time search.

Rampant adoption of smartphones has much to do with Twitter's growth, according to Jack Levin, co-founder and chief executive of ImageShack, an online media hosting company which runs yfrog.com, a service for sharing images and video on Twitter.

"The explosion of smartphones in the United States and many other countries has led to the success and ease of communication between people and Twitter is certainly in the middle of that," Levin said.

"People obviously want to communicate and Twitter is really a communications platform," he said of the service which allows users to pepper one another with messages of 140 characters or less and provide links to the Web.

"It's a hybrid between instant messenger and email," Levin said.

Levin's yfrog.com is one of the thousands of applications created for Twitter by outside software developers credited with fueling the popularity of the microblogging service.

Facebook, which started the trend of opening up to outside creators of fun mini-programs, was also quick to realize the appeal of being able to connect from anywhere at any time.

"The thing they've done and MySpace didn't do is they've really expanded the scope of their network past the initial site," Keath said. "Facebook Connect is a big piece of that, where you can take your Facebook account and log in from other places."

Facebook and Twitter are popular because essentially they "provide real value to people in their personal and work lives," according to Stanzel.

"You can keep up with hundreds if not thousands just by having a Facebook account or by being active on Twitter," he said.

Stanzel also credited social media tools with "redefining the way in which companies or politicians relate to their consumers or constituents."

"Companies or politicians who have taken to Facebook or Twitter or YouTube are building more of a permanent relationship with their constituents or with their customers because they're engaged in a conversation," he said.

Keath predicted Twitter's growth is "going to slow," saying it is inconceivable the San Francisco-based firm could match this year's meteoric surge in user numbers.

Twitter needs to be wary of spammers "putting out garbage, bad information, trying to direct message everyone in the entire service, porn links and things like that," Keath added. "That would cause people to restrict their networks a little more."

Stanzel warned that if Twitter "starts becoming overrun with advertising or becomes too complicated they might see their growth slow down or even reverse."

Keath suspects Twitter, which has yet to unveil a plan for making money, will seek over the next year to become "more of a marketing tool."

"I think there will be a lot of emphasis on providing more value to businesses and commerce in general," he said.

As for Facebook, Keath said it "looks highly likely that they're going to launch a payment portal, a payment tool.

"There's debate over whether there would be high adoption of giving Facebook your credit card information," he said. "But if they do that they're not only going to have your social network but your commerce too.

"And then they've pretty much locked in most of your activity online."

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