There are several arguments going around predicting Peak Twitter. The discussion raises a number of interesting issues questions about social media and scale.
In Twitter is peaking, Steve Rubel describes the risks to Twitter as social trendiness and increasing messiness.
Too popular. Social networks seem to have a property in common with nightclubs, bars, and restaurants – they are popular for a while. Then the throng moves on. The digerati were on Orkut for a few minutes, before moving on to Facebook and Twitter. Popularity depends on community – Facebook and MySpace are bigger in the US, Bebo is big in Europe, Orkut is big in Latin America.
Rubel hypothesizes that the trend pattern is similar other pop culture trends, where hipsters create a trend, and then flee when the mainstream arrive. Rubel writes, “Just six months ago, the list of the top 100 users on Twitter read like a who’s who of geeks. That’s what made it a draw, for many, initially. Now, however, the list looks like People or US Magazine. Twitter is losing its geek creds as celebs flock to the service.” The difference is, a social network is a great many places, not one; the network is inhabited by millions of overlapping subcultures. Honestly, I haven’t heard of many of the pop culture celebrities who have recently joined Twitter, and the ones I’ve heard of, I don’t follow. I do follow some of my personal heroes, but they aren’t pop culture icons.
The argument that people magazine starlets and nba players will crowd out niche communities is the same mass media vision that there would be a handful of pop-culture centered websites that would crowd out the rest of the web. There are 270 million people on Facebook, which is a great many more than say, the 15 million people who visit Disney every year, and their subculture-centric Facebook experiences are different than the mass-produced Disney experiences.
Too big. The second argument is scale and disorganization. “Since replies are not threaded, celebs and corporations do not feel they have to respond to every Tweet.” This is a real challenge. Rubel rightly recognizes that tools are evolving to address the challenge. What’s missing is that personal needs are very different from organizational needs.
For personal use, the fact that Twitter is a flow is part of the charm. A twitter feed doesn’t carry the same perceived social obligation to keep up and respond as email or instant message. You can dip into the stream, step out, and come back later. For personal use, people need some better tools to manage their attention. Tweetdeck, which Rubel calls out as a good example, adds groups, search, and embryonic filtering into the basic experience.
The needs of non-celebrity individuals are different from the needs of corporations, politicians, and famous poeple. If your constituency has thousands to millions of people, you need very different tools to monitor the conversation than if you are following fifty or 100 people. If you’re an individual, and you miss an update from a friend or an interesting news link, no big deal. If you are striving to use Twitter for constituent listening and feedback, you want to notice complaints, suggestions, and kudos. You probably want to have multiple people listening to the account, listening for different products or topics, and working on responses.
Dunbar limit. In ReadWriteWeb, Bernard Lunn makes the opposite point, that size doesn’t matter. “In a social network, the value for existing users of a new user joining the network plateaus once users have most of their own contacts in that network.” For mostly closed, symmetrical networks such as Facebook and Linked In, this is true. For mostly open, asymmetrical networks such as Twitter, this is mostly false, which Lunn mentions briefly. I suspect that people will cap their participation at some augmented Dunbar limit of the number of people they can follow with social attention and time. But in Twitter, retweets, searches, and visible replies mean that the more people who join the network, the more interesting information will be amplified through it, and the more potentially interesting people you may discover. When you have your existing contacts on the networks, it is easy and to make new contacts if you wish. The level of context is fairly high – you can see what someone else has been Twittering, and see if they are interesting and relevant to you. And the level of obligation is low (you can follow someone without giving them the burden of accepting or rejecting you).
Exploitation. In the ReadWriteWeb post, Lunn makes the insightful point that social networks can fail when their hosts start to violate the implied social contract with their communities in the interest of making money from their investments. “If these businesses get too eager to monetize to justify those valuations, they may create the reverse network effect.” When they move to monetize, hosts may move toward intrusive advertising, marketing, privacy violations, or other steps that benefit the site’s commercial interest and go against the interests of the users. I see the potential risks even more broadly than Lunn does. Intellectual property terms of service, and increased control over content and customization can violate the perceived community social contract as much as intrusive ads and marketing can. There is some inertia to switching, but in the absence of monopoly, annoyed communities do pick up and go with some regularity.
Parasitism. In Mourning the loss of Twitter, Ross Mayfield predicts that Twitter will fall prey to the spam and other antisocial behavior that crippled Usenet and Email. Hopefully the Twitter ecosystem will evolve to meet the threats, and blacklist and social filtering tools will keep the parasites from killing the host.
Twitter is a fascinating experiment since the social scale dynamics of an asymmetrical, open network aren’t known. I suspect that the ecosystem will evolve social and topic filtering tools that will help it scale; time will tell. The platform strategy is helping already – third parties are building tools to search, manage, and respond to the twitter stream. And I hope that the Twitter management retains a good sense of environmental judgement and finds ways to make money that don’t feel exploitive to the community.