The power of tweets: The future of Twitter

Some of my words ended up in a Guardian article by Jon Henley today on the ‘power of tweets’ – a balanced piece that sums up a lot of the debate over the nature and power of Twitter that have been batted about the internet recently, not least on this blog, concerning Trafigura, Jan Moir and now AA Gill.

Since talking to Henley I’ve been pondering some of our conversation in greater depth, so wanted to detail some thoughts on the matter.

For my money Trafigura was a high watermark in the site’s power, as an expression of its extent and force for change. The Moir thing was also worthy of praise, but displayed the potential herd mentality of Twitter, especially when driven by celebs.

As for the Gill thing, it gave me the first indication of the potential ‘outrage of the week effect’.

In many ways this shouldn’t come as a surprise. All new social media sites go through a period of exponential growth and, essentially, ‘growing up’.

Twitter, as a community, is just coming to terms with itself and what it is all about. We’ve already seen this happen to Friends Reunited, Myspace, Facebook and – to an extent – Digg, Delicious, StumbleUpon, Reddit and Fark.

At first there was little to choose between the last five, but they’ve all branched out into different directions.

The Grauniad’s own Comment Is Free community is another example. Right now I’d say it’s in a particularly troubled adolescence, so unpleasant a place it’s become.

I’d say Twitter could go either way at the moment. Its growth could level off, in which case it remains a forum of like minds. I’ve outlined the drawbacks to this, with the Gill phenomenon, but I also think this could be a positive.

And let’s not forget that in and of itself there’s not much to Twitter – it’s still the traditional media lavishing such attention on it that is driving Twitter into the mainstream. Twitter propelled Trafigura into the mainstream, but it was cleverly nudged into doing so by The Guardian and Alan Rusbridger.

I’m unimpressed by the quote in the article from the guys from Spiked, one of whom ‘really hates Twitter’. Fair enough, but to deny its value as a tool or its ability to focus attention on an issue like Trafigura seems counter-intuitive, or even snobbish.

Twitter is a very simple tool, used in many different ways. Recent events have shown the good and bad of the community, but to write it off as something that ‘doesn’t work’ on an organisational level is patently untrue.

One of the questions Henley put to me was what the future holds for the social networking site. I had to admit I don’t have a clue, and I don’t see how anyone can.

Henley quotes a Twitter ‘leaked internal document’ that sees it in a few year’s time as ‘the pulse of the planet’ with 1bn users.

I found myself wondering if that’s likely to happen, and I don’t think it is. Most social networks have their time in the sun before something else springs up.

And if Twitter were to reach that landmark, would it be Twitter as we know it? The community seems to be chiefly populated, at the moment, by UK and US early adopters: left-leaning; likely to work in media or PR; socially and environmentally aware.

But the other obvious demographic seems to be urban US teens, who seem to be mainly responsible for trending topics involving US celebrities or daft internet memes – gossip essentially.

I think that if Twitter makes it to one billion users it’s this latter aspect of the community that’s likely to be in the ascendancy, which would rather scotch the ‘Twitter as fifth estate’ notion put forward by Stephen Fry.

As for Fry, the poster boy of the ‘offencerati’, he seems to have found the attention all too much, announcing his retirement from Twitter only today. I doubt Henley’s article has anything to do with it, but it highlights what a focal point Fry has become on the site.

He also alludes to the growing ‘aggression and rudeness’ – the Comment Is Free effect. Maybe we’re already into the next stage of Twitter’s growth.

All told I think this comes back to the duality of Twitter as a platform and as a community – two very different things. The former initially informed the latter, but as it becomes more mainstream those early adopters will be joined by more and more people, and more diverse people at that.

The most telling quote in Henley’s article is Stephen Levy’s:

Twitter left a ball and a stick in a field and lurked around as its users invented baseball.

Where Twitter goes from here, and whether we have our apoplexy of the week, rather depends on what Twitter’s new users do with that ball and stick next.

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