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Twitter is dying.

December 7, 2009

Many of the classic signs of impending doom are present.

Slowing growth – a few months back it looked like the number of Twitter accounts was going to rapidly exceed 100 million, and the growth rate promised a pending numerical battle with Facebook – at over 300 million accounts. Now the 100 million mark is approaching with almost glacial slowness. To make matters worse, more and more of the newly minted accounts are bots (automated), spam or the equivalent of simple name squatting.

Declining platform use – all but a relatively limited number of the Twitter faithful are using their Twitter accounts less. After all, there is so much competition for our time. Statistics show that from peak levels of Twitter use, around the time of the Iranian Election and Michael Jackson’s death, we are all Tweeting with substantially less frequency. Isn’t it terrible, that crisis appears to be the major driver of platform growth in social networks (especially Twitter). Unfortunately, it also appears that many of these ‘lifts’ may come with inbuilt time limits.

Bloating and stagnation – there are also the telltale corporate signs of stagnation and questionable changes in strategy. An innovative and entrepreneurial start-up (read: Twitter) moves into glorious new corporate offices. All that packing, choosing furniture, colors and coffee machines must take priority, it was hard won and long deserved after all. Forget about serious product innovation, managing growth and platform stability, all of those unpleasant inconveniences can wait until after the inevitable buy-out. If you were one of the Twitter stalwarts (now seriously paper rich), wouldn’t you be thinking about what you can do next, after you sell your share of the platform? Oops, am I getting a bit nasty, guess I’m having a bit too much fun with this post. Lets just say that key Twitter people may not be as hungry any more (anyone checked their Twitter post frequency lately?). They also have all sorts of mature business things to worry about now – some may call it politics and bureaucracy.

Blood from a stone – there are those evil little signs of commercial imperatives gaining ascendancy. Changes in product functionality, seemingly aimed at squeezing out more growth for corporate benefit, rather than the early innovative purity of singularly focused product development and improvement. It’s wonderful when you are spending money, it gets decidedly harder when you have to generate it. With follower rates slowing, why not add a new dimension to re-stimulate the connection inflation – welcome to: Twitter Lists. Twitter has generated another ‘vehicle’ for user activity escalation – for a little while. Does anyone who has been on Twitter for more than a year put the same energy into #FollowFriday (recommending people for others to follow)? In fact, does anyone even care when Twitter has a ‘moment’ and drops its proverbial bundle. Recently, the Twitter API began providing the follower list in random order (it used to be in reverse chronological order) to Twitter applications, making it harder to identify follow-back opportunities. This seemed to annoy some people, for a few days, and then it was as though no one cared. The evangelical feedback loop of early adopters and innovators appears to have stopped. In fact, the whole Twitter community seems to have become somewhat lethargic and accepting when Twitter stops working, maybe we are all preparing ourselves for its death. We are gearing up for the grieving process.

Death Watch. When the money stops – there is also the uncomfortable question of whether the Twitter infrastructure will be maintained if it can’t be effectively monetized, and whether changes necessary for monetization might themselves speed the demise of Twitter (you could ask this about YouTube as well if you wish – how long will Google fund a $400 million per year loss). In Twitter’s case, the question may be academic if FaceBook or Google Wave squash the poor little birdie first. Seriously, a little bit of market success and everyone wants in, it’s just so unfair for others to pinch the micro-blogging space, some respect … please! Poor little Twitter is only a few years old and it already looks decidedly endangered. Guess a few years online is really a lifetime and perhaps even longer in the whirlwind life-cycle of social media platforms.

Stone the blasphemous prophet?

Please don’t! I love Twitter and of course I am being somewhat facetious. However it is true that Twitter is experiencing all of the issues discussed above – well, more or less. In reality, Twitter is experiencing the well documented wonders of the ‘hype cycle’. Take a look at Gartner’s 2009 Hype Cycle Special Report, in particular the lovely illustration about half-way down (you’ll thank me and be quoting hype-cycles at dinner parties). You will see the little blue dots for “social software suites” and “micro-blogging” just past the initial high-peak (next to Cloud Computing – a blog topic for another post *insert wry smile here*).

If you agree with Gartner, and on on this matter I do, Twitter has passed through the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and is heading into the “Trough of Disillusionment” – such colorful descriptions would make for a great technology storyline. A few months ago, heritage media commentators (‘heritage’ – such a wonderfully derogatory description of mainstream media, I just had to use it) were all abuzz with Twitter. Most of these mainstream voices had no idea what Twitter actually was. A classic sign of Hype. I have no idea what Twilight is (perhaps an 80’s song by ELO) but it is certainly on a hype-cycle. Now the mainstream media are quieter (on Twitter, not Twilight) and the silence is in fact the slide after the hype.

Many people who did not experience Twitter in the first pass will be saying: “see, it was a fad, glad I didn’t jump onto that one”. These laggards had their equally mistaken counterparts with the Internet, email, TV and foreign food. Of course Twitter (and all social media, microblogging and related technologies) are not dying. Instead, their place is in the process of determination, integration and slow maturity. Twitter, and social media more broadly, will ultimately move into the “slope of enlightenment” – a slower but much more powerful and long lasting period of growth, leading ultimately to mainstream acceptance and sometimes ubiquity. At least until technical disruption wipes it out (another post for a future date – for now lets just say cassette tapes and cathode-ray tubes).

So next time a TV commentator, your work colleague or an annoying sibling says “I hear Twitter is dying”, shrug it off with a knowing smile, keep learning and preparing for the resurgence that comes from maturity and understanding. Of course, in the meantime, a few major players may fight it out over both the micro-blogging model of the future and who takes market share.

Despite a circa billion-dollar valuation, Twitter still has an epic battle for survival on its hands!

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2009 5:41 AM

    Great article with a few, uncomfortable truths and a happy ending. Long live maturity. 🙂

  2. spyfood permalink
    December 7, 2009 8:11 AM

    Sensational and unfounded!

  3. December 7, 2009 10:24 AM

    Hi, in my view you contradict yourself: Either it is dying or it follows the hype cycle as many innovations do it. And the hype cycle cleary says that after the phase of disillusion it will reach a ‘plateau of productivity’ – IMHO that’s the opposite of death.
    P.S. Is still remember the headlines in 2000 like “e-commerce is dying” …

  4. December 7, 2009 2:42 PM

    Really enjoyed this post. I blogged about a similar topic regarding MySpace back in 2007 when the death watch began there. I think Twitter will continue to evolve and remain relevant but the hype will fade. All of social media is experiencing some degree of over-hype right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s all a fad. As you mentioned, we’ll eventually move into the ‘slope of enlightenment’ with social media, and the brands, agencies, service providers, etc. that embraced it from the start will have a major advantage over their contemporaries who waited to make sure it would stick.

    Thanks for the reminder of how carried away we can get with this!

  5. December 8, 2009 5:24 PM

    Interesting article. I would disagree somewhat with Hans-Dieter Zimmermann’s comment that you contradict yourself. If you’re looking at product life cycles, not all of them make it past the hype phase to the ‘plateau of productivity’, which is what you’re suggesting Twitter needs to build the foundation for. They’ve been skating on the hype without investing the effort for future monetization and user-retention. I do think, though, that they’ve been working on infrastructure, judging solely from my own personal experience of fewer downtime incidents (incidii?).

    Personally, I don’t have a whole lot of faith that the site itself will survive longterm, for the reasons you’re citing. But my prediction is that the concept will remain, incorporated into a multitude of platforms and web2.0-3.0 technologies. Microblogging is easy, fun, and useful. But Twitter itself is fairly difficult to use without a lot of external software and tools to help overcome its shortcomings. Remembering to use hashtags? Needing to use an external URL shortener in advance before pasting it into your tweet? Posting pics and video to other sites before it is posted to Twitter?

    Twitter is a nice platform for information dissemination, but if it can’t be a content storehouse itself, it will lose relevance as other sites take the ball and run with it.

  6. January 20, 2010 3:50 PM

    I personally think Twitter started dying when they changed the @replies function last year. Before then it was a giddy candy shop of discovering new conversations and people easily. Now you have to really make an effort to dig and who has time for more effort these days?

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  1. tJP » Twitter - what next and how it can grow( to be a raging success)

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