Originally published on Guidewiregroup.com
I don’t like Twitter. I’ve never been coy about that. When it first launched, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” When it exploded in use, I thought, “This too shall pass.” When Ashton Kutcher sent a picture of his wife’s ass to the world, I thought, “We have reached the point of no return.” And yet, here we still are. Oh sure, I tweet. I’m an emerging tech analyst; I have to. But I’ve never been happy about it. If Twitter disappeared tomorrow, I’d be quite content. And several events over the last week left me wondering if we are indeed watching a technology fold in on itself. Is Twitter about to jump the technological shark? Or has it already? The evidence:
1) They’re boring me. A friendlier home page. A new Retweet button. The ability to make lists. The new features rolling out of the Twitter factory recently are incremental and yawn-worthy. Take the newest update, Twitter Lists, which allows users to build dynamic lists of people, grouped however their hearts desire. My non-techie friend @poliepete said it best: “Can’t you just create groups in Tweetdeck?” He’s got a point. There are a couple of small differences – these lists are public and other people can subscribe to them – but otherwise it seems another exercise in technosphere ego-stroking. Though Robert Scoble posits that the introduction of lists means no less than the end of numbers as we know it, my experience was anti-climatic. I cherry-picked a few people from lists created by others, but haven’t followed any list as a whole. It took me a long damn time to get my Tweetdeck right where I want it and I don’t need other people with disparate interests mucking it up. So a feature that caused a minor stir for a bit seems to have already faded. You can now group like-minded people together in Twitter. So what?
My point: Twitter isn’t exhibiting a desire to evolve. For a product that has achieved such explosive growth since its launch, it sure seems happy to rest on its laurels. It’s as if the sole difference between the first-gen iPhone and the 3GS was the ability to tag your contacts. Granted, the iPhone is about $300 more than Twitter, but free shouldn’t equal lack of innovation.
2) The kids aren’t using it. This is a point of contention among many. Depending on which survey you’re reading, Twitter use is either growing or receding among the youth of today. No one can seem to get a straight answer out of these kids. The Associated Press ran an interesting exercise in confusion a couple of weeks back, in a piece that I’m still trying to figure out. Titled, “Grudgingly, young people finally flock to Twitter,” the article states that the younger generation hates Twitter. But they use it to follow celebrities. Sometimes. Unless they don’t.
“Quite frankly, I don’t need to hear if someone stepped in dog poo on the way to class or how annoyed they are that they lost their favorite pen,” says Carolyn Wald, a University of Chicago junior who has not joined Twitter and rarely posts status updates on Facebook because “I don’t want to assume that people want to hear those things about me, either.”
I like the cut of your jib, Carolyn. Can I friend you on Facebook?
What was even more striking to me, though, was a little tweet (yes, I get the irony) sent out by my friend Laura Beck. She heads up the Porter Novelli Austin office and sent out the following last Thursday:
Btw, taught 2 mktng classes @ tx st wed, 60 kids, jr/sr, NONE use twitter, all think for us oldies. Interesting
To translate from 140-character speak, Laura taught marketing to 60 college students and not a single one of them used Twitter. I’d say sixty kids is a pretty good sampling; hell, major political decisions have been made on less.
My point: Twitter should be worried about this. They should be worried that Carolyn Wald thinks it’s only for dog-poop updates. Trusting that a technology – one that hasn’t had a major upgrade in feature-set, design or philosophy since it’s launch three and a half years ago – will somehow settle into a generation as it ages is a risky proposition.
3) The spammers are taking over. I don’t know about you but Twitter spam is starting to drive me batty. I blocked more than 50 people this past week alone, some of which sported some seriously gross profile pics. Even more fun, I attracted topic-specific spammers from certain tweets. After tweeting that I couldn’t decide between eating a cream-cheese-loaded bagel or yoga class (I never said my tweets were thought-provoking), I received a follow from “Health & Wellness” within minutes and Philadelphia Cream Cheese within the hour. It felt creepy and slightly stalker-ish. I’m in no way the first person to say this but Twitter still doesn’t seem to be listening. They must remedy the spam problem.
My point: Twitter is teetering on the edge of becoming one giant commercial. Just today, CoTweet announced a $1,500/month service for enterprises that allows major brands to store data about customer interactions on Twitter, as well as analytics that show their reach. In other words, it’s about to get much easier and more beneficial for Philly Cream Cheese to keep track of your bagel consumption.
4) So are the jerks. In an absolutely fantastic piece for TechCrunch, Paul Carr tells us the story of Tearah Moore, a soldier based at Fort Hood who tweeted during the horrific attack last week. This being Twitter, Ms. Moore didn’t feel it necessary to censor herself and so her stream is filled with all sorts of expletives directed at the shooter. Fine whatever, be angry at the lunatic who killed your fellow soldiers. What she did feel obliged to do, however, was post a picture of a “guy who got shot in the balls.” As Carr puts it,
“Rather than offering to help the wounded, or getting the hell out of the way of those trying to do their jobs, Moore actually pointed a cell-phone at a wounded soldier, uploaded it… and added a caption. Her behavior had nothing to do with getting the word out; it wasn’t about preventing harm to others, but rather a simple case of… ‘look at me looking at this.’”
My point: Do I even need one after that? No, Twitter isn’t entirely to blame for such gross behavior. But it certainly encourages it by its very essence. And I doubt it’s going to improve. In an age when first-on-the-scene witnesses are valued and utilized by national news organizations, we’re guaranteed to see more detailed and more graphic accounts from citizen journalists.
Wrap it up already! All of this adds up to a trainwreck of a technology looming on the horizon. One abandoned by sane users and left filled with snuff films, porn stars, and marketing come-ons. While writing this, I kept trying to think of an analogous product. One that started out as a pretty good idea but quickly became glutted with crap. The obvious example is email – but it’s far too necessary. Be honest with yourself: if Twitter folded tomorrow, would you miss it? Has it really become a value-add to your workday? Or is it another stream to monitor, another to-do list, another volley of voices to hear?
There is a nugget of value at the center of Twitter that has become lost, even to the company itself. Instead of thinking up new ways for us to pat each other on the back, Twitter needs to hearken back to its days of creativity and spark and give us something useful again. Change our workday, shake up our preconceptions – just do something. Stop waiting around for someone else to do it for you.