Twitter's IPO, not Facebook's, will define social

October 22, 2012: 6:54 AM ET

Too much has been made of Facebook's botched offering. Here's why Twitter's will matter more.

By Don Reisinger, contributor

FORTUNE -- The hype surrounding Facebook's initial public offering in May was overwhelming. Nearly every investment bank was clamoring to get its hands on the company's shares. Analysts were calling the event the defining moment of a new Internet IPO movement. After Facebook's offering, some said, countless Web companies would join the stock frenzy and start offering their shares. Valhalla was in sight.

Unfortunately, reality hit. Like Icarus, Facebook's (FB) share price tumbled down from its $38 opening price to around $20. There it has lingered. Naturally, other Web companies that might have gone public put their plans on ice. Perhaps worse, the IPO that was to be a clear clarion call defining a new Web era marked by massive growth in social networks, news aggregation, and location-based services. Instead,, Facebook's IPO became a black mark. (Facebook will announce its second earnings this week.)

But there might just be a saving grace out there: Twitter.

At this point, Twitter has become one of the most important social networks on the Web. The site doesn't have Facebook's 1 billion users, but it has cemented itself as global, always-on, always-active global forum. Consider this: When Osama Bin Laden was killed last year, it was a Twitter user in Pakistan that broke the news first. Examples like this abound.

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All of that has helped Twitter usage soar. In May, Pew found that overall usage has doubled over the last two years, with 15% of all online users surfing to Twitter. Just a month later, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo revealed that his company had hit 400 million tweets per day, up from 200 million just 11 months earlier. That growth has prompted financial gains, even as the company's revenue model remains a work in progress. According to research firm eMarketer, Twitter's revenue will likely hit $288.3 million this year, and then jump to $545.2 million in 2013. By the end of 2014, the figure will soar to $807.5 million.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter has found a way to monetize mobile users. So-called sponsored Tweets -- messages paid for by advertisers -- are more easily present on tiny cell phones screens. By 2014, it could generate $444.1 million from smartphones and tablets, according to eMarketer. In contrast, Facebook's plan to make money from mobile users has not convinced investors. Twitter doesn't rely on other social companies to generate a large chunk of its revenue the way another once-hot stock Zynga (ZNGA) did. (Its woes are another matter.)

Ultimately, that is why a Twitter might be the validation this generation of Web companies need. The site has the same public appeal as Facebook, with a better -- if smaller -- financial yarn to spin investors.

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The niggling problem? Twitter seemingly has no desire to go public. In a host of interviews over the last several months, Twitter's top executives have said that they don't see an IPO in the near future. Earlier this year, in fact, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told Bloomberg that his company's IPO is still "way out." He echoed that sentiment in September, telling CNBC in an interview that Twitter has "every hope and belief that we will be a successful -- independent -- company."

It will happen some day. Early backers and employees alike are attracted to startups by possibly lucrative equity. An IPO is the best way to cash out. Twitter has received significant venture-capital investment -- over $1 billion at last count.  When that happens, expect a different scenario to play out than that what happened with Facebook. Twitter has a more stable business model that combines heavy usage with strong user engagement. The social network is woven into the events of the day, and doesn't rely so heavily on partners to succeed.  Facebook might get all of the attention as the world's largest social network. But it might just be Twitter that comes to define this wave of Web IPOs.

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