I remember when I first started using Twitter intensively.
I had initially registered in March 2007, when Twitter first rolled out at SXSW, just for testing out Twittervision (I found the concept interesting). I have tried most computer mediated communications applications since the late 80s, from BBS boards and chat to voice and video conferencing and going through email, Usenet, forums, blogs, etc. And so I also registered and tried out Twitter.
I didnt find it that interesting. The name itself made you thought not only of pointless chatter but also of baseline stupidity (as in “a twit”). Still, having demoed the microblogging concept to my students, I started using it intensively at the end of 2007. It was somewhat useful, as an extension of publishing your IM status or as an alternative tool for blogging, when you had some issue that didnt warrant a full blog post. This was before it started to be bastardized with the @somedimwit “invention” and becoming a worldwide chat system. I, of course, was one of the culprits.
As all CMC applications (and chat in particular) it was initially very useful and very interesting. This, like in all CMC apps, depends on the number of users on the system. And on their intelligence level. Any online public space, as soon as it gets a huge influx of newbies, very quickly turns into a “tragedy of the commons”. Case in point, the yearly September invasion of Usenet by new college students who got access to the Internet for the first time. Or the AOL invasion of Usenet and its subsequent death.
At the end of two years, in February 2009, I decided to stop using Twitter. To stop using it as a chat system, mind you. I’ve kept on publishing my status and/or use it as a microblog. Just like I do with Facebook, MySpace, Hi5 and a dozen others. I dont follow anyone and I dont reply to @ messages. Fundamentally because of what I referred above: the influx of huge amounts of clueless users (can you say Oprah and Ashton?) started to turn Twitter into a mindless chatter of dimwits, where the information to noise ratio started going down very fast. And, as all CMC apps (chat in particular), because of that Twitter started to turn into a flamewar free for all and/or bonfire of vanities.
From my experience with previous online communities and group chat systems, Twitter is a fad and isnt here to stay.
And I’m not alone.
Quoting BusinessWeek: “There simply aren’t enough new users to make up for defecting ones after a certain point,” writes David Martin, VP of Primary Research at Nielsen Online. With its current retention rate, Martin calculates the service could never reach more than 10% of the Internet population, even in a best-case scenario.
Martin also compares Twitter to Facebook and MySpace. Even in their early days, those sites had double the retention rate of Twitter when it started. Today, both hover around 70%.
If people can’t form a lasting Twitter habit, even when the site is at its trendiest, that’s the tell-tale sign of a fad.”
Like all previous online chat systems, it might look that Twitter is here to stay and that it is becoming part of the plumbing of the Internet. But thats what was thought of other technologies like Usenet, IRC or ICQ. And they all died within a few years of its peak.
Why is that? Well, for starters because any centralized system tends to fall together at the seams and be replaced by decentralized systems. In that line, IRC was 10x better than Twitter. Second, because any system that doesnt use or promote open standards tends to lose the game to, well, standards that are open. An XMPP PubSub will be well into being a Twitter-killer.
But Twitter will fail especially because it became and is becoming a tragedy of the commons. Like Clay Shirky said, “a group is its own worst enemy”. And a CMC system that doesnt provide for 1) investment in user handles; 2) members in good standing; 3) barriers to entry in participation; and 4) sparing the user from scale; will be doomed to failure, just like Usenet. And Twitter fails miserably at numbers 3 and 4. And any attempt to deal with number 1 (like the verified user strategy) just wont scale.
Since Twitter publishing is so friction free, it has become a worlwide chatter that only provides for gigantic but useless sensationalist trends. Atributing to Twitter the qualities of a “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon is a huge mistake: for wisdom to be extracted out of a crowd you must have a critical number of informed, intelligent members. Otherwise the crowd is basically an echo chamber of ignorance.
And it will only get worse. As newbie users come into the system, the problems will compound. As more users get into the system, more spammers are getting into the system. Trying to deal with the scale of the firehose using hashtags will be useless since those will start to get hijacked by said spammers. Just wait until you try to find what kind of netbook to buy for your wife at Xmas and you get overwhelmed by @replies, direct messages, hashtag hijacking and DM messages.
The only way for users to save themselves from the deluge will be to go private. Which will defeat the idea of Twitter itself and of it being representative of a wired collective voice. Indeed, that formation of private self-defined groups of trusted friends, connections and sources will be the signal of the coming fragmentation and decentralization of Twitter. And of its fall.
When you cant make out of the crowd who is Moses and who is Jim Jones either the value of the networked crowd goes to zero or the 12 tribes will get split. And a new “religion” is sure to end the Twitter consensual hallucination.
(in reply and based on the NYTimes “Why Twitter Will Endure” article)