I just don’t get it

Why is everyone going on and on about Twitter? Why?

Technology is weird. Everything happens in “Internet time”, a new combination of space and time in which none of the old rules matter, or so we are led to believe. In the late 90s, there were hundreds of new ideas that promised to magically “revolutionize the way we live, work and play”. These ideas became businesses overnight which got VC funding, making it look a lot more important than it was and making the VCs look a lot more inane than they were. The typical war cries of the day were “it’s different this time” and “you just don’t get it because you are so old fashioned” and “we live in the New Economy now”; all of which sounded admirably bold at that time, but turned out to be painfully wrong a few years later. In case you didn’t notice, revolutionary ideas are hard to come by (perhaps one every few decades?), else they wouldn’t be so revolutionary now, would they?

To me, all Twitter does is add more noise to an already tedius cacophony, 140 bytes at a time. A new way of communication it is most definitely not. It’s not going to enlighten millions and transform the way we conduct our lives. Neither is orkut, or Facebook, or Wave, for that matter. I guess we feel incomplete and idle if we don’t make a fuss out of something every once in a while, and Twitter happens to be that something right now. Perhaps tomorrow it’s going to be pets.com again?

But, I complain too much.

Let me put it simply. Twitter is not going to change the way we live, work, play or communicate. It’s just not. Sure, there are going to be interesting things done with it while it’s such a cool, hot thing, but I just don’t see it enduring the test of time. A whole bunch of people are going to check it out just so that they can be seen as hip and trendy, but the only way the whole concept is going is the way of the lovely yet extinct dodo bird. Nobody’s going to care in ten years.

There are a few very simple, fundamental reasons why I believe this is how it’s going to turn out.

First in line, Twitter does not solve a hard enough problem that people care about. In fact, as far as my cynical eyes go, Twitter doesn’t do anything. It might be around in some way, shape or form, but I seriously doubt if it’s going to be anywhere as revolutionary as its followers claim it’ll be. For instance, the telephone was revolutionary because it solved a real problem: removing the physical constraint in communication. Notice how videophones were touted as the next big thing and no one has one right now? Just like the incremental value of having a videophone versus a normal telephone was just not something people cared about enough to warrant lasting, widespread adoption, the incremental value of going from blogs to tweets doesn’t look like something people will care about in the long term.

Moreover, an idea that is fundamentally based on participatory narcissism doesn’t sound terribly life-changing to me. Why exactly does humanity need to keep everyone updated on what they’re up to every instant?

The most vehement argument for how Twitter is such a fantastic idea is the comparison to the success of blogs. Much as I’d rather not, let’s look at this (sloppy) comparison for a second. Blogs (again, who came up with this name?) became popular not because they created a new “revolutionary” medium of communication, but because it lowered the barrier to entry to creating a website all the way down to a certain psycho-technological tipping point that it pretty much forced mass adoption. In other words, blogs became popular because the barrier to entry to creating content on the Web dropped, essentially, to zero. That’s all there was to it.

And if you look at the quality of the millions of blogs that have surfaced out of this “new way to communicate”, only a tiny fraction are worth your time. To be fair, that has nothing to do with the Internet, or blogs, because the success behind a great website has very little to do with being a website and has everything to do with the amount of work, creativity and content you can generate and these, sadly, are not as easy to come by as completing a form and a captcha to sign up to blogspot.com.

The final nail in the coffin is the sheer mania surrounding it. Twitter is so enormously popular today that it’s all likely downhill from here. The press is all ga-ga about how great Twitter is (just like how great pets.com must’ve been in 1999) on mainstream media including the Financical Times, the International Herald Tribune and of course, TIME Magazine. This gives me more, not less, conviction that we have a dodo on our hands.

Here’s a thought: if you’re the hot new thing, the first sign of worry you should have about your product or concept or idea fading into insignificance is when it hits the cover of TIME. Journalists are not paid to understand (and hence not very particular about) how things are going to be, they get paid to report what was hot last month. Ergo, they are loth to making the classic mistake of extrapolating the recent past into the far future. Which is almost always wrong.

I don’t know for sure how the future is going to look like. But if I were a betting man, I would bet that Twitter would be forgotten (read: won’t be anywhere as popular) five years hence. That’s just me. And I’m not even getting into how they’re planning to create a sustainable business around it. There’s only so far that the words “ad revenues” will take you.

It’s so easy to lose context.

Naysayers like me are always made aware that thingamajigs like these are also an entertainment medium (“timepass”, as we say in India), just like orkut is, and entertainment is a basic human trait that has endured centuries. That’s probably got some grain of truth to it, but then, something else will come along tomorrow that will steal attention away from the current hot thing, just like attention went from MySpace to orkut to Facebook. In fact, the avante-garde in Japan are already on to something that the rest of us are going to find out only in a few years.

Do I see humans using social networking and tweets as a fundamental basis of communication 50 years from now? No. Human nature works on time scales far longer than Internet time. It’s going to take hundreds of years to even begin to try and change the way we truly communicate (email might eventually get there, but emails are just letters, and we’ve been writing them for hundreds of years).

Till then, I’m going to be here by my non-touchscreen keyboard, writing complete words and sentences with no missing alphabets and all, ‘coz tweets just ain’t for me.

5 Comments

  • Interesting viewpoint but can’t help feeling, even as a non techie, that merits and value
    of Twitter are yet to be fully appreciated or monetized.

    Twitter is enabling individual to become advocates, publishers, journalists – a chance to become famous, be listened to and be valued. Ability to reach out and influence others, perfect strangers from all over the world, will always have a power and value all it’s own.

    Twitter will undoubtedly change but it is just another stage in the process of self expression and the development of the individual to become true to themselves.

  • Though provoking post. Enjoyed reading it.

    “Why exactly does humanity need to keep everyone updated on what they’re up to every instant?”

    Well, people are broadcasting there lives right now. Photos of places they have been to, music/videos they are seeing and even the last thought that passed through their mind, and no doubt they are enjoying it for the moment. Now all these popular sites cache on any media type, ie flickr for photos, youtube for videos and now twitter for your thoughts (or what they call micro thoughts/blogs which happens to be plain text). Like you rightly said they are all ‘time-pass’ and don’t add any value/utility to our lives.

    So a set of such ‘time passing’ sites will be around and popular for every 4 years and then the next set with the new web X.0 technology takes on. What I’ve felt about all this is that people just need to spend time on the net, they love spending time on the net and these companies are focusing on ‘how to get a slice of their time-on-net’. And humans naturally get bored with stuff they do ‘just for fun’.

  • Spring68: I agree that any medium that has the power of influencing millions will have allure. I do not dispute that. What does feel shaky to me is that Twitter is neither the best medium to do that, nor the first. My voice of dissent is predicated on my observation that all Twitter gives is merely the illusion of being important and influential, and that’s got to wear off pretty quick. Influence is not conferred, and earning it is much harder than having a bunch of followers on Twitter.

    Sreejith: Your thesis that people like using the Internet (perhaps because it gives them more control and visibility and instant gratification?) is spot on, and I guess the site du jour will always be popular. Which makes me think what kind of services and sites will have lasting longevity like the telephone had.

    As Shirky says, “here comes everybody.”

  • Would you agree updating status messages on chat portals were the earliest tweets? :)

  • Banjo, yeah!, hadn’t thought of that before, but yes, I agree! Right from the time of ICQ (another hot thing that no one uses any more, including me), to MSN Messenger to Yahoo Messenger to now, Google Talk.

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