Twitter is Dead, Long Live Twitter

A year ago today, Twitter was something that many communicators were just trying to wrap their heads around. It was a new form of communication that was threatening to upset the precious fiefdom that they had built up over years and that had been taught in universities.

A year ago today, Twitter was something that a fringe of the greater population used regularly to discuss the election and monitor debates and campaign stops. It was something used for grass roots organizing and the biggest name was @BarackObama.

A year ago today, a handful of major media outlets were using Twitter. @ricksanchezcnn adopting Twitter on air at CNN and using it to monitor conversations around stories he was reporting on was a major coup de grace for stalwart journalism types who refused to adopt this new form of communication.
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Contrast these three scenarios with todays world. White House staffers are using Twitter as a regular routine. Sports fans follow @QBKILLA (aka Warren Sapp) and @THE_REAL_SHAQ (aka Shaquille O’Neal) – and yes, your observation of sports figures typing in all CAPS is not unshared. Musicians like @johncmayer – John Mayer – and @davejmatthews – Dave Matthews – are also using Twitter and talking to fans.

With this massive uptake of Twitter, it’s easy to think that the platform has arrived. And it has. It is as mainstream as any social service could hope to be. At the same time, Twitter is dead.

I don’t mean Twitter is going away. In fact, I don’t think it will ever go away. In fact, I think it is part of the future of online communications, much like email was back in the 1990s. Back then, it was somewhat rare for people to have email addresses. Clearly, this changed toward the end of the decade, but for most of the decades, the fad of having email was clearly seen in the resurrection of the old chain letter. We would find funny things online and forward them to all our friends like email was going out of style. Those of us who had an email address were considered the rare few.

Over time, email revolutionized the workplace to the point where, at the start of this decade, it was unusual for people not to have email and businesses began to rely on it as a necessity for internal and external communication.

Spamming picked up on the email service as it became easy to assume someone was attached to an email address somewhere.

Since 2006, Twitter has been like email of yore. Relatively few (in the grand scheme of things) had a Twitter ID. It was seen as somewhat geeky and was dominated by early adopters (from true early adopters early on to earlier-but-not-quite-early adopters joining in late 2007 and 2008. We developed exclusive little circles that we gave cutesy names like “tweetup” to – a mashup of the words Twitter and meetup. We developed our own lexicon for the efficiency of 140 characters. Words like “failwhale” and “hashtag”. We would “at” people and “DM” and we all knew what we were talking about. It was our little secret that would cause innocent bystanders to scratch their heads in collective confusion.

Sometime last year or early this year, perhaps with the election or the sudden rate of adoption thanks to celebrities such as Oprah and Ashtun Kutcher joining the rank and file, Twitter became mainstream. It happened while we were asleep and we all revelled in the fact that these well known names were becoming part of us. Until it happened without our notice and we became part of them.

See they used our tool to assimilate our culture into theirs – the same way they used tabloids and celebrity blogs to draw more attention to their worlds. More power to them. Twitter is not something that can be assigned rules of behavior or communication.

Excuse the long winded article as I come into land with my point.

Historically, tools come and go – whether email or Twitter, the sex appeal of a service inevitably gives way to the practicality of being. Much like a marriage where (and I’ve been through this), a couple meets, dates, has fun, gets butterflies but eventually settles into a more mature state of existence with their partner, platforms evolve into a mature offering that is critical to communications. It becomes the norm to have the tool and the conversation evolves from the topic of conversation to the catalyst for conversation. The platform ceases to be the focus and just “becomes”.

This is where we are at now, or rather, where we should be now. We are not and this needs to change. Twitter as a business offers much fodder for discussion, but Twitter as a tool needs to become that tool and not the topic of conversation. When we get together we need to stop having tweetups and start getting together. We need to put down our iPhones and BlackBerrys and sending 140 character messages on to our friends in the ether. Instead of talking to them, get back to communications with the people sitting across the table from you.

Instead of worrying about how to use Twitter, we need to just use it. Instead of having panels at conferences about Twitter, we should be having panels about the topics people are talking about on Twitter. Instead of worrying about whats the best way to use Twitter, we need to get back to our roots (whether in journalism or communications or customer service) and start doing the jobs we are meant to do and using Twitter to make our performances better.

Twitter is dead as a topic of conversation. It is dead as fodder for blogs. It is dead as a startup that is revolutionizing our way of lives. It already has revolutionized our lives and now we run the danger of over-committing to a way of life that will keep us in one place instead of looking forward to the next big thing. Twitter is important to help us get to that point but, like Twitter founder Biz Stone says, it should be the pulse of the planet. And that’s it.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

27 thoughts on “Twitter is Dead, Long Live Twitter

  1. Nicely said Aaron. I think most communicators knew this “new media” was just a new channel to do what we were already doing. It’s tool to do exactly what you said…perform our jobs better.
    Thank you for putting this out there.
    And to all the big PR firms and news distribution services, etc who think I need to attend a forum to know how to “use twitter” please email someone else.
    Thanks!

  2. I’ll have to read through this again & digest your argument.

    Can I just ask, what prompted this declaration? Did Twitter hit some milestone? Or is this a realization on your part? Twitter has gone through numerous phases every 3 to 4 months as newcomers arrive and last season’s newbies become settled in as regulars.

  3. Well said, Aaron. But did we want Twitter to go mainstream? Some of us enjoyed “our little culture.” What is to become of it when CNN and the White House are on Twitter, and tweeting is taken for granted like making a phone call?

    To me, Twitter had represented on opportunity for the non-Bill-Gateses of the world to have a hand in the evolution of technology and journalism. The common person had control over this new “social” medium. Anyone could be a reporter of the news in their local corner of the world for their circle of friends. True, it was fun and exciting when Shaq and MC Hammer first joined. But the more mainstream Twitter gets, the more I get the feeling we are about to lose something we might never get back. Should we welcome the removal of the “social” from social media?

    1. I think it’s more about discovering (and if you’re inclined – innovating) the next generation of social and communication tools. No one is advocating giving Twitter up. In fact, I said as much… it’s here to stay. But are we simply satisfied with the status quo [of what Twitter is] or are we going to innovate our approach to get even more bang down the road?

  4. Aaron,

    First time reader and I am thrilled I found you. Very, very well said. I, too, believe that Twitter (and FB, and LinkedIn, et. al.) are simply tools to get the job done. When using any new tool (think…hammer) for the first time, there is a ‘to be expected’ learning curve that requires an investment of time, attention, and commitment to pull through, however isn’t the end goal for any to0l to make some job more efficient and effective? I agree with you that Twitter’s end game is to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of some portion of an individual’s or organization’s communication.

    Thank you for putting this thought into such an eloquent post and stimulating us to focus on future thinking and uses of this powerful tool in our box.

    Kelley
    @kelleymoore

  5. In 1986, three years after I went into business, I asked people if they had access to a fax machine.
    In 1987, I asked people if they had a fax machine.
    In 1988, I asked people what their fax number was.
    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose!

  6. Very interesting post Aaron. I don’t know if I should be ashamed to admit this or not, but I have resisted learning anything about Twitter at all! I guess I just feel that I’m not “important enough” to participate. But I DO see where it can be a very important tool, and hope that it does continue its evolution to that end.

    And this puts me in mind of when I resisted getting a cell phone when they first came out, and now I panic when I can’t find mine! LOL!

  7. Amy – I resisted Twitter because I thought it was a stupid idea – so now it’s time for my own “beer summit.” I didn’t know anything about it, really (another reason for a beer summit). Seriously — you’re probably more “important” than 99% of the people on it. And it takes time and patience to make sense of what Twitter is for/can do (and you may need something like Tweetdeck to organize the flow of Tweets to do what Twitter “should do”). Take the plunge, and take baby steps. It can feel like trying to walk across a 12-lane highway…don’t let anybody “push” you.

  8. Hi and thanks for such an insightful, inspiring post, Aaron. I thought it was wonderfully measured…

    You’ve hit the nail on the head when you say people need to ‘communicate’ in person, rather than than be distracted by the medium itself. The focus shouldn’t be on the ‘Twitter’ phenomena – it should be on how it opens up new channels of communication, allowing us to perform better.

    What Twitter has initially achieved is to get people talking and engaging with each other again. This has been long overdue in the corporate world. I’m a UK copywriter and first-time blogger. ( Don’t hold that against me!) For me, Twitter has been useful in terms of talking to other like-minded people around the globe – and, it’s also been an amazing source of information.

    I don’t get bogged down by how many followers I do or don’t have; I simply enjoy this platform for what it is and use it as another way to be in touch with people.

    Thanks again, Aaron. I thoroughly enjoyed your post.

  9. Aaron:

    I think your comments are insightful.

    Twitter is at a crossroads right now as it decides what it wants to be when it grows up.

    As such, it seems the focus is on getting bigger, making more $$, and not necessarily getting better.

    To wit, one sure sign of growing pains is when a Twitter account gets inexplicably caught in the account temporarily suspended net.

    I’ve been observing a growing number of disgruntled people saying that Twitter doesn’t respond or communicate with them to indicate why this may have happened.

    In fact, it appears that going through the support ticket process is an exercise in futility as Twitter appears to rarely have a direct communication with their Twitterers who may not have broken any TOS, but for some reason get caught up in a ‘spam cloud.’

    If Twitter as a tool, doesn’t recognize the importance of customer service and email follow up with customers having specific problems, than they will crash and burn. They need to tweak and refine their infrastructure so their product is responsive and trustworthy.

    Communication channels require communication and it seems they’ve been lagging far behind on this issue.

    I want my tools to be reliable. I want customers whom I refer to Twitter, to have their problems addressed and explanations and dialogue to ensue.

    A tool needs to work. And when it breaks down, it needs to be immediately and directly addressed.

    Let’s hope they pick up the ball before it’s too late.

  10. Amen, LegallyBlonde! A very reputable publishing site, catalogbiz, was suspended and can’t find out why. Very frustrating. Two weeks ago it was Ginidietrich, for heaven’s sake! Twitter needs to improve its customer service, but also its handling of alleged TOS violators in the first place. Any one of us could be next….

  11. I agree with the idea that Twitter as blog fodder should be dead, but your own article proves it’s not, unless you intend this post to be the eulogy of Twitter (the company? the application? the medium? the behavior of using Twitter?) as the subject of conversation.

    Nitpicking aside, perhaps you’re right in the sense that Twitter is probably ready to move out of early-adopter obsession mode (or should be forcefully shunted to the side). Unfortunately, Twitter the company and Twitter the pop culture topic tend to overshadow the fact this is a fairly simple tool that will (and should) become a commodity soon enough, much as the Apple iPhone has popularized mobile computing with a touch-based user interface but eventually iPod will just be one brand among others.

    On the other hand, the social and psychological aspects of services like Twitter are still worth considering and talking about, because these things transcend Twitter the tool, Twitter the company, and Twitter the pop culture sensation of the quarter.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  12. Aaron, thanks for sending the link to this. Of course, it was also waiting in my feeds when I got back to my hotel. Also, great seeing you this evening!

    While I unconditionally agree with your points, I also believe that we’ve barely scratched the surface of uses to which Twitter can be put. Continuing conversation sparks innovation. (I also don’t mind talking about potential new uses of the telephone, although there will be far fewer of those.)

    /shel

  13. good analysis – I rss stream my fav Tweeps’ tweets (fav topics are Quality Management Systems, Knowledge Management, Engineering, Project Management, Records Management) straight to Google Reader

    then metadata tag them

    then do java clips of selected tags – cut’n’paste these clips onto a Sharepoint Wiki Web part – sharing with my fellow colleagues inside our firewall

    it’s all too easy in this Post George W Bush GFC constrained world which has seen so many orgs’ training budgets effectively nuked for a long time – with Twitter, Google Reader and Sharepoint I can stay current on key topics without costing $’s that my org doesn’t have
    cheers
    @KerrieAnne on Twitter

  14. Thanx for the good read. Well argumented and written. Your post might, at first sight, seem obvious. Reading it carefully, the argument opens up as a rather large question: Where should twitter go next? I really look forward to the time when conversations, seminars, newspaper articles, TV news, and even political campaigning, are not about “twitter-the-tool” but about the content and how to develop this a step further.

  15. Thanks for the insightful article! I think Twitter is really challenging what the Internet industry assumed people wanted and were familiar with. In a way, being able to dip in and out of the constant stream of information, is a response to everything the Internet throws at us.

  16. Well put! I think Twitter is a neat app that simplifies communication and helps you stay up beat on what’s going on in others lives – but other than that – we need to understand that twitter won’t always be the hottest thing around.

  17. I would be surprised if Twitter – in its current form – survives the test of time, given that it is just a very simple tool. Your comparison with email is, I believe, a bit out of context, as email provides much more than simply sending short text messages. Indeed, Twitter’s success lies in its simplicity, but that’s also its limitation, and in the end, its simplicity will be its downfall. People want more communication, not less. Sometimes “less” is “more”, but only sometimes.

    I hope I’m wrong, but I’m afraid I’m right.

    In any case, to see what laws of physics Twitter is up against, you should watch numbers pertaining to sustainability — that is, how many people will continue to use it month after month? If new people don’t sign up as fast as existing members’ usage declines, Twitter will eventually “Peter” out. There is an article on blog-dot-nielsen-dot-com entitled “Twitter Quitters Post Roadblock to Long-Term Growth” that explains this concept.

    Thanks for the post! It’s a very interesting perspective.

  18. Aaron,

    Interesting thoughts on Twitter. I have only been using Twitter for a month now. Yesterday when I read some tweets, I was upset because they did not include the source of the information they were sharing. So within one month’s time I have begun to expect that tweets will point me somewhere, to a place where I can get more information.
    I have also been thinking about emails. It is so annoying to me when people send out chain email -something they think will appeal to all-a story, video, or photo. They zap it out to everyone on their email list. It is like junk email. I have been thinking about digital manners. I don’t think this use of email is good manners. And yet it is very difficult to ask those people to stop doing this. It feels rude somehow.

    However, Twitter would be an excellent way for those chain emailers to get their very important information passed on to others. People could follow the link or not according to their preferences. It wouldn’t feel like junk email. It would just be another tweet. Perhaps the next time I get some chain email, I will encourage that person to sign up to Tweet and send out info that way instead.
    Ruth

  19. Funny how I should stumble upon this article just now, while I was thinking about how everybody keep on tweeting about… Twitter. Twitter and social media are here to stay. Maybe it’s time for people to redefine their objectives with these tools rather than to keep obsessing with the tools themselves.

    As you point out, Twitter shouldn’t be about Twitter, it should simply be one of the many tools you can use to make your life easier.

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