The Twitter That Was


Let’s start with a couple of interesting links: first, Nate Westheimer’s post from a few weeks ago in which he notes that his own Twitter use (and that of a number of other once heavy Twitterers) has been declining over the past few months. The full post and chart are here [and you should take a look], but the key proposition kicks it off:

Like your favorite bar in the East Village, Twitter sucks now that it’s popular.

That’s the feeling I’ve had for sometime, and — as it turns out — founder @ev and investor @fredwilson agree… at least statistically.

A week or so later, Mark Schoneveld added an interesting note to the discussion that was swirling around Trent Reznor’s very public decision to give up on Twitter. [Um, again, I mean. Give up Twitter again.] As above, you should really read the source document, but here’s an elegant snippet from Mark’s post:

The direct-to-fan connection that Twitter offers can be fun at first – or was fun at first – but dealing with the mainstreamed onslaught must be incredibly difficult for artists. To keep up with and maintain boundaries of privacy and priority starts to be impossible as a point.

On the face of it this looks pretty bad: there are many similar rumbles (and not just appearing on Tumblr, you cynics), and these two examples come from pretty insightful guys who are also tied into communities that have been responsible for a lot of enthusiasm about Twitter.

I agree with Nate and Mark as far as they push it, but I also wonder whether the very real problems that they point to—problems that are unfortunately linked to Twitter’s increased popularity—signal the start of Twitter’s decline as a communication tool, or signal the start of its evolution into a tool that plays a different role in the “real time web.”

While I, too, kind of miss the Twitter that was, I believe that Twitter from 2006 through 2008-ish was one facet of something new and rather different being jury-rigged to fit into an older model of the Web. It was an exciting social communication tool in that context, but I think that where Twitter will be valuable as we go forward is as plumbing, rather than wallpaper.

We’re used to thinking about Twitter as a simple transport mechanism, a largely unfiltered input == output system: each and every tweet is picked up by a little universe of followers, and that’s the end of it. Occasionally we might check Twitter’s trending topics to see what the spammers have to say, but the value of any given tweet is seen as having a mayfly-scale lifetime, where you either catch it the moment when it’s relevant or you just let it flow past.

But if Twitter is just a transport mechanism, we’re pretty close to done.

Trent Reznor simply can’t handle tens or hundreds of thousands of people nitpicking at him in 140 character chunks any better than he can handle email or phone calls from that many people. Nate Westheimer (a really open, accessible guy in my experience, so no criticism of him) will find that his Twitter followers have changed from a community into…well, followers.

If, on the other hand, Twitter (and let’s make Twitter a portmanteau word that includes the rest of the mobile/social world) is nothing more or less than a huge data set about what’s happening right now, then we’ve got something interesting. Yes, this stuff can be rendered right now for the small number of people interested in seeing it, but it can be used in many other ways as well.

If things go as I expect (and hope), yes…any given individual will Twitter less often and there will be less of the “neighborhood bar” feel to the service, people will check in less frequently using Foursquare, and the ambient intimacy thing that has been so compelling will at the large scale become a “hey, do you remember when…” curiosity.

Let’s just accept that and figure out how to use real-time data to inform and enhance what’s happening online, rather than just enjoying the fact that we can know that something happened just a minute ago. If you immediately respond to every single thing that happens, you’re a jittery mess; if you take in everything that happens and give it a little processing time…well, let’s see what happens, shall we?

  • Akashic Rik

    Hey dude. I just saw your post fly past on Tumblr, and it seems you're thinking about some of the same stuff. Though my main chatty Tumblr is akashic-rik, I started one for this very topic a few weeks ago, called tweetstream. It'd be great to have someone to discus with.

  • whitneymcn

    Excellent — just starting following, thanks for the pointer.