Lately, I've been sort of surprised - shocked, actually - to hear this refrain from both clients and the corporate, nonprofit and foundation leaders I often speak to at conferences:
"Isn't Twitter pretty much over?"
This is very much not a variation on the old but reliable "I just don't get Twitter, explain please" line. No, this harsh Twitter query is coming from people who use the service, understand it, and have invested significant time and resources in building followings, lists, and networks. They tweet. They're mobile. They use apps. But they're newly skeptical of Twitter's long-term advantages. And I think my new standard answer to this questions surprises them:
Don't get me wrong: I use Twitter, I find it rewarding, and I recommend it to my clients as a key part of the social media mix. But there's this nagging imp on my shoulder and his message is constant. "Twitter's not the same, it's not like it used to be, it's not as good."
This moment comes for all social networks when the early adoption crowd is run over by everyone else. What felt cool, and forward-leaning, and semi-private now feels like Times Square at midday clogged with double-decked tourist buses. Attention is down. Noise is up. Success can spoil the club. That's human nature.
But there's also something else. Twitter is a private company, of course, but it always felt like a public accommodation - far more so than, say, Facebook or MySpace. It was the user base that created most of Twitter's innovations from the hashtag to the @ message. The small start-up company provided the pipes and tended the code and database. Even smaller companies took the data and created useful applications. Innovation didn't just thrive on Twitter - it fairly seethed. This felt like a new way of communicating - and of sharing causes on the social commons - the occasional fail whales be damned!
Fast forward, as we must. Twitter now has a userbase of 150 million people and a hydra-headed imperative: revenue growth, big company status, an eventual public offering, marketshare, brand domination. We read that it must compete with Facebook and Google or face relegation - that it must find a way to satisfy marketers eager to exploit its vast, tech-friendly, super-connected audience.
And so Twitter is now acting very much like a marketing company. Nothing wrong with that, of course. They're determined to ramp up revenue. But with Twitter, it also seems the decisions they make internally aren't as - well - smart as the ones their committed base of users once made for them.
Take "Promoted Trends." Please. This "innovation" allows advertisers to buy their way to the top of the popular trends lists that adorn Twitter pages on the service's website. Thus, movies and airlines suddenly appear on top of true crowd-sourced trends like real news and pop culture phenomena. Of course, a purchased "trend" is not a real trend at all. It's a lie - though brazen and open in its telling. The other day, for instance, a movie called "Paranormal Activity 2" was the top "trend" on the New York version of Twitter's homepage. It's marked with a yellow "Promoted" tag, which doesn't explain how much money was paid for the privilege. Nor would that label be - in any way - clear to newbie or light users who may not be Twitterholics reading the Twitter blog or following @ev or @biz. And yet it was somehow "trending" higher than "Cablevision" - the real news story of a cable TV black-out at playoff time.
It was weird as well to see Jet Blue buy a fake trend, or Conan O'Brien's usually savvy public brand make the mistake of jumping the line of actual trending topics in the last few days. Couldn't they have - oh, I dunno - actually engaged the community and earned real trends? I tweeted on this of course (I still enjoy Twitter quite a bit) and got thoughtful responses from Morgan Johnston of the Jet Blue team, including this one: "We (@JetBlue) have always embraced Twitter as a company & the community dialog it encourages. Promoted trends contribute to both." And I believe that's true, though I do think it makes Jet Blue look like a line-jumper in the end. But heck, they're advertising a brand and Twitter is offering the unit - at the expense of all the social capital it worked so hard to gather - so who you really gonna blame?
The so-called "promoted trend" is a massive symbolic stumble for Twitter.
It's entirely inauthentic, just shy of truly offensive, and deeply at odds with the ethos that has governed Twitter up until 2010 - an ethos that turns out, in the end, to be about as genuine as promoted "trends."
Further, it adds to the already difficult signal-to-noise ratio that is Twitter with mass adoption. Quite frankly, trends have lost a lot of their value since hashtag spamming exploded during the days of the Iranian revolt. Attention, even with thousands of followers, is hard to come by. Conversation isn't what it once was.
Twitter remains a fantastic network for sharing links and coming across interesting information from a network of great sources. It's also a terrific amplification and promotional tool for campaigns (and products of course). But it feels less social. And with paid "trends" and the direction for the company they may indicate, Twitter feels a lot less authentic these days.