In sports, you’re not allowed to root for teams. In tech business reporting, can you root for companies? (Because I am rooting for Twitter.)
Twitter is peculiar. Its language is cryptic and its customs are largely invented by its most obsessive users for its most obsessive users. For this reason it has trouble growing. Compared to other social networks, it’s tiny. Last quarter it added 14 million users. The messaging service WhatsApp is about double Twitter’s size and has added 50 million users since February.
And yet Twitter is big and meaningful and mainstream and undoubtedly a large part of not just the internet but greater culture. That’s in large part because many of the world’s loudest, incessant, and influential voices have adopted it as their broadcast mode of choice.
Which might be why today, over at The Atlantic, the site has published a eulogy for Twitter, declaring that, after an eight-year run, the social network is entering its twilight. The reason: the “audience-obsessed, curious, newsy” Twitter crowd, a subset of the platform’s power users have grown quiet or tired. There’s no real data behind it, it’s more of a feeling. And an ominous one at that.
The thoughtfully written post though, penned by two smart reporters who are both quite active on Twitter, does not signal the dying days of Twitter as much as it illustrates Twitter’s bizarre “special relationship” with its most obsessive users, many of whom are, in some way, a part of the media.
Twitter’s role in media circles often skews the perception of Twitter’s size and role. As the article acknowledges, “Journalists who have spent an inordinate amount of time on Twitter will tell you that it used to feel like everyone was there, an assumption that’s as ridiculous but as hard to shake as the idea that New York City is the center of the world.”
As a result of that insular club mentality, journalists, celebrities, artists, and athletes developed a fierce loyalty to the service along with a desire to preserve that feeling of community. Some journalists — especially those covering technology — I’ve talked to feel a strange kind of friction or conflict covering the social network, having to balance the reality of Twitter as a large, faceless publicly traded corporation with their own personal affection for the product.
In a way, the “special relationship” turns every tweet-obsessed journalist into a Twitter beat reporter of some kind, only without any real perspective. Media types will often tell you they “live on Twitter,” which is a telling turn of phrase. The result is a group of people (myself included) that are hypersensitive to every minor tweak and nuance of the network. It all starts to feel very personal. After all, we live here.
To the authors’ credit, there has been a noticeable shift in tone and participation on Twitter that’s both impossible to articulate or quantify without access to proprietary data. But the reason for the change, if anything, is that Twitter is growing up and growing into a business.
Post-IPO Twitter has made every effort to be more inclusive to new users by streamlining confusing language, constantly bombarding users with strangely specific notifications, and catering to anyone but the power users. That Twitter’s new profiles bare a striking resemblance to Facebook’s is far from a coincidence. Twitter has a formal, public plan now and while it includes the early media crowd, they’re not the focus. The relationship is less special.
The sense is that Twitter’s been picked apart and that there are fewer opportunities to make it one’s own. It’s been formally colonized by ads and new users who’ve been pointed toward following celebrities and brands. User quirks and inventions like hashtags have been co-opted by corporations and memes and inside jokes quickly fall into the hands of a crowd they were meant to subvert. The neighborhood is changing.
Is there reason for Twitter to worry? Sure. At some point Twitter will die just as everything does. And the chatter, feel, and lost sense of cool that the piece tries to capture are all a part of that process. Twitter has a well-documented growth problem, and if Twitter abandons its most ardent supporters in an attempt to fix the issue, that could herald end times. Judging by the reaction to the piece — most of which played out on Twitter — we’ve still got some time before then.
In the end, the piece is less a eulogy than an intervention. The piece is filled with wistful reminders of how things were, but, unlike a eulogy, there’s a sense of hope that things could change as well as a caution of what will be lost if it doesn’t.