When I was a boy growing up in Burnaby, we would gather each March in the parking lot at the Crest Plaza strip mall to plot our baseball season. Inside of the local eatery parents and league officials would conduct a draft, seeding players onto teams and organizing the schedule, while we kids loped about the parking lot sipping Cherry Coke and tossing baseballs across the parking lot. A hundred or so kids desperate to impress prospective coaches burned sliders, changeups, breaking balls, and (my favourite) sidearmed split-fingered foshes at each other. The result was a whole lotta pitching, and not so much catching, with balls zooming over heads and skittering down sidewalks. Broken windows aside, it was certainly an interesting way to while away a chilly Saturday afternoon.
What does this have to do with Twitter? I’m getting there.
When Twitter was created, none of the core team were quite sure what it was they had built. It was an open-ended platform with limited utility but powerful reach, and became a clean sheet onto which savvy users penned their own utility. To date Twitter has shined as a mechanism to propagate ideas, status, and other forms of (guffaw) intellectual creativity in 140 characters or less, and has made it easy for people to track and follow those whose ideas, status, and guffaws are noteworthy to them. More recently it represents an interesting and compelling way to search ideas, nearly in realtime, as they plot their course through the collective psyche of the twitterati, including such worthy topics as this morning’s #Skittles firestorm. Still, many have questioned its utility.
This morning’s availability crisis (ostensibly brought on by the Twitterification of fans of the TV show “The View“) highlights one consequence of a growth management problem. But that’s a simple issue: more servers, please. But as Twitter is now clearly tipping into the mainstream, the more complex challenge is how to maintain some sort of acceptable signal-to-noise ratio. The vagaries of the general public may well threaten to soil our garden much as the growth of the internet to the wider corners of the intellectosphere rendered Usenet.. well… unusable.
Which brings me back to the Crest Plaza parking lot. With all of the self-ascribed “Social Media Experts” running around encouraging corporate clients to blast their marketing messages out over Twitter, and with the influx of celebrities into the Tweetspace enabled by the simple power to publish by sending messages over their mobile phones, there’s certainly lots of messaging traffic. But all of this “grass roots marketing” means that, like the beginning of baseball season, there is a whole lot of pitching and not a lot of catching.
The presence of an increasing number of celebrities on twitter, in particular, are illuminating a disturbing trend. Hockey phenom Alexander Ovechkin rather sweetly tried to maintain two-way conversation with his fans but found it difficult to scale. His intentions were clearly sincere but obviously having thousands of fans buzzing his mobile phone became a killer. As of this morning, Ashton Kutcher has 201,869 followers but himself is only listening to 48. There are clearly practical limits to how many people we can specifically converse with. I don’t begrudge these ratios, but anyone who thinks that this is truly conversation has never been in a bar. We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, and clearly more and more people crave more and more access to their favourite stars. But just because you’re following William Shatner, does that mean you’re communicating?
Likewise, there is only so much that we as individuals can absorb from the sphere of things we declare our interest in. At the risk of sounding McLuhanist, the form may be much more important here than the content. My concern is that the former is quickly overwhelming the latter.
Speaking firsthand, I have sent replies via twitter to well-known Twitterati like Mathew Ingram, Fred Wilson, Ian Rogers, and others whom I also communicate with via email, Facebook, and other media. I’ve never actually heard back from those tweets, but I can’t take it terribly personally since I know these folks have replied to other messages sent by me via phone, email and Facebook. Are they really listening on Twitter? I’m not sure that, at a sufficient level of scale, that is possible in practical terms. I once asked Robert Scoble (who oddly follows more than follow him) how he could keep track of so many people (at the time, and this was in 2008, that was around 2100). His answer was, essentially, that he doesn’t. He checks in when he can and based on sheer volume there is almost always something that is interesting to him. It is akin to standing behind a dumptruck that is 99% rock and 1% gold and trying to grab nuggets while the tipper lifts.
This doesn’t seem like the solution to any problem. I still occasionally find topics of interest via twitter, though as my network expands the numbers are fewer and the time spent increases. Moreover, Twitter appears to have become better at empowering the illusion of conversation, rather than actual conversation — this makes it the perfect hangout for the fame-obsessed, the celebrities, corporations, and various other notorious self-promoters.
So while Twitter continues to grow thanks to its amorphous nature, eventually measures are going to need to be put in place to mitigate the signal-to-noise ratio and preserve (or pinpoint) the service’s utility. Embedded in this is both risk and opportunity. The risk is that a gatekeeper placed at the wrong entrance will turn away users. The oportunity is that charging a toll at certain entry and exit points may enable the company to establish a viable, independent financial future, a topic which is the source of considerable debate lately.
Ultimately though, Twitter’s long term success is dependent upon more pitches landing in gloves. With such a strong, open, and growing network of individuals, the end result of a lot fewer broken windows benefits us all.