Old curmudgeon that I am, I’ve spent a lot of time grumbling about Twitter, but having got used to using it I’m forced to admit that there are some things to like. However, I still take issue with some of the dizzier admirers: two that come to mind are Tim O’Reilly for calling it “the most important communications tool … since e-mail” and whoever it was who (apparently seriously) called for the creators of Twitter to be awarded the Nobel prize for the effect Twitter had during the Iran elections. I don’t think these fans of Twitter are wrong so much as missing the point.
Good social networks aren’t really about technology, they’re about who you can connect to with that technology. Obviously there is such a thing as “better” social networking technology; such a thing might give you
- more flexibility to choose how you communicate
- more power to express ideas
- more media types available (video, audio)
But far more important than these are the qualities of the community:
- more people to communicate with
- access to people with appropriate experience
- people who are more engaged with and attuned to the purpose of the community
- people with time to spend on the community
New technology by definition attracts early adopters, and these tend to be the right sort of people to build a good community: they take an interest in new things, they have a positive vision of the future and are willing and able to invest time in making something work.
By contrast, as a technology matures and crosses the chasm into the mass market a much wider variety of people comes on board. Technologies therefore tend to slide down the vertical axis on the above graph over time.
Not every change to the community is another eternal September, since some networks adapt better than others to this change. Technology can be part of the solution here, so the correlation between good technology and good community is weak but positive. New networks can draw on lessons learned from fading networks of the past, and become stronger for it.
I think there’s even a chance that there can be a positive uplift on the trailing edge of a trend: now that some of the cranks and spammers have moved on, usenet seems to be home to a proportionally higher number of wise old hands who make for stimulating discussion.
Whatever the details of the matter, it seems to me far too early to be prognosticating the position Twitter will hold in the history of human experience, even if its place in technological history may be confirmed.