The End of a Trend

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.

Comments

  1. What exactly would need to happen for you to feel that this theory was validated?

  2. Hmm, interesting question Jordan. It's an aspect I didn't really explore in the post, is it?

    I don't think it's a numbers issue, as in my theory won't be validated until Twitter users decline. It's instead a question of who those users are. If anything, the number of people using Twitter will only grow but I expect they will be marketers, spammers, and other types of charlatans. In its current state, Twitter is tailor-made for traveling salesmen, so to speak.

    One of two things is going to happen, nay is guaranteed to happen: another technology will come along that one-ups Twitter, allowing people the same type of instantaneous communication but with more security and value-add. The smart folks will start leaving and you'll notice because your feeds will grow decidedly more junky.

    And some person and/or company is going to take all of Twitter's valuable data and do something actually useful with it. Think for a minute of all that information just lying fallow on Twitter's servers…

    So while there isn't a single trigger that's going to allow me to crow, “Told you so,” there will be signs that are relatively easy to spot. And by that time, everyone will have forgotten I wrote this and link to Arrington instead. ; )

  3. If businesses & marketers don't get a return out of Twitter, they will leave.

    If the users get burnt out on an environment where they exist side by side with marketers, they will leave.

    If the scales don't significantly tip either way, Twitter will hum along for the near term future regardless of it's location relative to any sharks, with it's worst case scenario being MySpace 2.0 with a flat userbase and limited future and it's best case being a highly monetizable platform with a relatively 'marketing receptive' audience.

    I think your point #3 is the strongest threat to Twitter's existence, but the future is unwritten.

  4. Twitter too shall pass – hopefully soon. I experimented with it for about 2 nanoseconds and then abandoned my account.

  5. Really good thought-provoking post!
    My thoughts, numbered to match up with your points:
    1. Most twitter users rarely if ever use the homepage. Its okay if it bores me as a result – I'm a tweetdeck user so far. I only use the website when, for some reason, I can't use tweetdeck. Agreed twitters features are a bit of a yawn lately.
    2. The kids were never using twitter. Point is, this hasn't changed, its just always been the case. It turns out, the influence of kids on technology is dramatically overstated because every generation of journalists fresh from journalism school and entering the ranks of Fortune Magazine likes to write how much smarter and tech-savvy their generation is than the previous generation. When it comes to familiarity with technology, the earlier in life you interact with it, certainly the easier it is for you. But twitter wasn't around when these kids were growing up: ) Besides… the value of “networking” and “social network” tools like Twitter, don't have much value to people who don't have a network (yet), and don't see much value in building/maintaining their network. This is the same reason that kids in highschool don't use linkedIn, but I wouldn't consider it a problem for linkedIn's business model.
    3. Twitter is definitely going to have to jump on the spammers. But this is true of every platform I've ever used. Email, FB, Twitter, Blogs, RSS feeds – they're all pretty subject to abuse from spammers, and twitter (and its clients) haven't perfected how to eliminate the benefit of spam to the spammers. For example – collapse all identical tweets and just show me a count of the tweets that have substantially the same content. Give me a place to click to see all the posts individually for that topic. One of my saved searches is a space IBM likes – they post about 100 times a day with that hashtag, and the posts are 100% identical. That's not good marketing, that's just brain dead use of a platform. So I filter my search to eliminate anyone with “IBM” in the name…

    4. As for the jerks taking over… this just has nothing to do with twitter and everything to do with people (and jerks having cell phones that take pictures… and mms or twitter or facebook those pictures… ) I imagine lawmakers could help out with this by giving people the rights to their own image whenever they are identifiable rather than anonymous. Instead, current law gives all the rights to the photographer… not only is twitter not to blame for such behavior, it isn't to blame at all. I can point you to about a million websites that are clearly put up by jerks :) We just need people to have more… humanity.

    I started out as a huge skeptic of twitter. I'm still lukewarm on it. I agree with you that twitter can and should do much more to make the service useful/relevant/less-annoying. Today's announcement of the partnership with linkedIn though makes perfect sense. I use twitter for almost strictly work-related purposes, and linkedIn serves the same purpose for me – so they're highly complementary in that sense. Different tools have different purposes, and twitter may well get subsumed by something else (it seems almost inevitable given how relatively open the api is and how easy it is to subjugate it to other interfaces/applications… but it hasn't happened yet)

  6. michellegreer says:

    I respectfully disagree with this post.

    There is no empirical evidence that traffic to Twitter or Twitter usage is in decline:
    http://www.nickburcher.com/2009/03/twitter-demo

    In terms of Twitter lists, whenever a new technology comes out, people play with it. People are just poking around with lists to see what they are capable of at the moment. This happens with any new technology, web or otherwise. People will eventually learn to leverage lists and then they can be very powerful.

    If you do not see value in Twitter or Twitter lists, go to listorious.com and see all of the lists that apply to your areas of expertise. You have to consider the source, but I see a tremendous potential in grouping people by tags or interest.

    You just have to be more proactive in finding the people who can provide value to what you want to hear about. If you are into the semantic web, here are a few lists right off the bat you can chose from:
    http://listorious.com/rockstarin86/semanticweb
    http://listorious.com/alisohani/semanticweb

    Here are tech startups:
    http://listorious.com/Scobleizer/tech-startups
    http://listorious.com/marshsutherland/boston-st
    etc etc. there are many of these on Listorious

  7. You are right – twitter is over time and will be crashing in 2010. The really important thing is Cleantech and the Clean Energy Revolution and not a tool like Twitter. They don't create cash! ByebyeTwitter :-)

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