Yes, Twitter is revolutionary--just not in the way you think

Time magazine, in its cover story, asserts that Twitter will "change the way we live." Not really: it's more like "the way we live will change Twitter."

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

I thought Twitter hype had reached a fever pitch with the big Oprah appearance. Boy, was I ever wrong.

If it isn't Time magazine's "How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live" cover story, it's the widely-circulated Comedy Central clips of co-founder Biz Stone's April appearance on "The Colbert Report," or it's chairman Jack Dorsey, in New York for this week's Internet Week festivities, showing up in society-blog photos from the sidelines of a Diane von Furstenberg fashion show. (OMG!) When I was joking about Twitter's executives reaching pop-idol ubiquity, I didn't think it'd be this soon that they'd start to seem like a slightly older, slightly less puppy-faced set of Jonas Brothers. Twitter and its creators are unavoidable.

But there's something nobody's really saying about Twitter throughout all this: Not everyone is going to use this service. Far from it, in fact. Its mainstream impact could very well have nothing to do with TweetDeck, hashtags, or even the name "Twitter" itself.

The Business Insider did a nice by-the-numbers of exactly what Twitter's explosion amounts to: 60 percent of users quit after a month, ten percent account for 90 percent of all "tweets," et cetera. All these numbers point to one fact: Twitter is high-maintenance. Even if you're only using it to read the latest updates from a few publications and some of your favorite bands, you're still reading about them in short bites that flow in a relatively inefficient manner. Parsing the noise takes effort; participating in it takes even more.

Compare that to Facebook: you can create a static profile, check in every few days, get an e-mail alert when a former high school classmate has added you as a friend, and you're all set. There are loads of apps on the social network if you feel like playing a round of poker or pretending to turn your friends into vampires, but at its most basic level, it doesn't require much effort to stay active on Facebook. Not so with Twitter.

The company's executives seem to acknowledge that in order to reach those who won't get involved otherwise, Twitter has to think outside the 140-character box (er, stream) and get the news industry involved. These people who don't actively participate in Twitter--you know, the 60 percent who drop out after a month--are going to know Twitter as something that enhances the news they already read and watch.

"One thing that's missing from it is the editorial. I think a cohesive narrative around all these reports is missing," said Jack Dorsey at Internet Week's I Want Media panel on Wednesday, just a few hours before he was looking worthy of any gossip magazine's annual eligible bachelors list at that Diane von Furstenberg show. "Bringing journalistic integrity to this mass of messages happening in real time is still very important."

In other words, Twitter's executives realize that the product in and of itself doesn't suffice universally for a legitimate, lasting mainstream reach--namely, an impact on people who aren't going to use Twitter otherwise. There are already dozens of developer applications making it possible to customize and enhance the service. The company is now working actively with media outlets on what it calls the "creative API", integrations of Twitter into content like Current TV's news programming and MTV's forthcoming "It's On With Alexa Chung." That's the beginning of what Dorsey was alluding to on Wednesday.

As more media deals roll in, the question to explore is whether this will, paradoxically, dilute Twitter's reach (and potential for profits) as a company. Once something becomes a standard rather than a brand, it gets tougher for a single company to make money off it. Think about instant messaging: Millions of us use AIM, but AOL isn't getting any ad revenue from those of us who are using it on universal IM clients like Pidgin or Adium.

The Twitter guys have built a great product, and to their credit, I don't think any of them have ever gone on the record saying that they hope to turn all six or seven billion or however many people there are on the planet into active users. It's not that this "Twitter is revolutionary" talk isn't true. Twitter is revolutionary in the sense that it turned the world on to a whole new form of information consumption--real-time, public conversations, aggregated and searchable. But just like blogging or instant messaging, this is going to get bigger than a single brand or company.

Jack Dorsey said in the same event at Internet Week New York that "Twitter's a success for us when people stop talking about it." He's right. But that implies a few things: one, that the hype and wildfire adoption will die down; two, that Twitter will fade into the background as the mainstream starts to recognize it as something they see on TV news broadcasts rather than a nifty, trendy tool for informing the world what you're doing; and three, that as other innovative companies catch on, the "real-time streaming conversations" phenomenon will expand beyond this one microblogging service. Twitter's legacy may very well have the word "Twitter" left out of it.

For the 140-zillionth time, let's not get ahead of ourselves.