Tim was nice enough to write a tweet endorsing my article about the potential downside of Twitter’s emerging political importance. But he noted that I didn’t say much about what the alternatives are — fair enough! As I said to him in response, I was only too happy to have word limits save me from having to propose a solution. Even though I think the situation is unfortunate, at this point I suspect that there isn’t much to be done about Twitter’s rising political relevance.
But, y’know, time heals all wounds. I am convinced that Twitter’s import as a cultural hub will decline. Twitter won’t go away entirely, mind you — it’s a genuine medium unto itself — but I think its true legacy is likely to be a frankly unbelievable extension, evolution and popularization of the capabilities represented by SMS. Multicast? Common use of symbolic delimiters like @ and #? Widespread institutional adoption? Two years ago, if you’d asked Verizon when SMS would be used this way, they’d have laughed in your face. Now the marketplace is going to demand this functionality — if not from Twitter, then from someone else.
But as I said, I think the conversations happening on Twitter will become less relevant, and the medium less vibrant. Actually, I’m beginning to think that this is an iron law of online mediums. This post (via Megan) helped focus my thinking a lot.
Here’s how it goes. First, a network achieves viability — enough people are using it to send non-“hello world” messages that the community can sustain itself. Next, users experiment, publishing and republishing content that they find compelling. The system amounts to a collaborative filter, and the quality and novelty of the results are surprisingly good. At this point people begin to notice and discuss the potential for the network to have greater relevance — and, inevitably, those who don’t understand that participation in the filtering activity is non-negotiable begin whining about taking the medium seriously when they see so much trivial content on it. Despite this carping, more users join the network and its value and potential importance begin to be more widely understood. At this point users change how they identify content worth publishing or republishing: rather than the first-order “how compelling is this?” they begin using the second-order “how compelling will other people find this?” Although they were excellent and determining what they thought was interesting and appropriate, they’re comparatively terrible at determining what other people will like. Quality declines (“I blogged: del.icio.us links for 2009-07-02”). Worse, as users continue to try to shirk their collaborative filtering responsibilities, experimental uses of the medium are discouraged or otherwise become less viable. The system ossifies, and soon enough everyone is sick of having to check Facebook. Time for a new no-pressure medium for goofing off with your early-adopter friends. Rinse, repeat.
I don’t want to oversell the preceding — I’m pretty sure that Clay Shirky accidentally scribbles more profound sociological observations about the internet during the course of searching for a working ballpoint pen at the bank. But this is my understanding of the situation, and by now I think we have enough data points to conclude that most, if not all online social networks achieve viability, blossom and stagnate (it may still be entirely possible to run a viable business during the stagnation phase, I should point out).
It’ll happen to Twitter, too — it is happening. So let’s start talking now about what conditions we should demand of the next medium-of-the-moment before we start moving our political institutions onto it. My suggestion for a place to start: open, free, and likely to remain so.
UPDATE: This is somewhat related — it’s an example of what I mean by people withdrawing from the collaborative filtering process.