Twitter, the economic crisis, and Ralph Wiggum’s broken heart

Can you pinpoint the exact moment when a new technology becomes passé? Maybe it’s when the newspaper you dislike the most writes about it – perhaps linked to some heinous crime involving, in the case of social networking tools like Twitter, a violation of privacy. Perhaps it’s when marketing, business or celebrity have their interests piqued long enough to take part. Maybe it’s when your gran is using it, exhibiting their new found skill like a dancing uncle.

The exact moment Lisa breaks Ralph's heart: has Twitter's heart broken?

The exact moment Lisa breaks Ralph's heart: has Twitter's heart broken?

Perhaps the tipping point is when a ‘web celebrity’ and one of its key advocates thinks it might be past its best. Robert Scoble recently declared it stunned, if not quite fallen off its perch:

Scoble: Twitter is broken

Scoble: Twitter is broken

What does this kind of message mean for Twitter? A comparison with the current economic crisis is illustrative (formerly known as the credit crunch, but despite its cutesy alliteration, ‘crunch’ is not aggressive enough: ‘crisis’ retains the sound pattern and ups the ante). Scoble’s not saying it’s dead: just that it has problems – but other less high-profile commentators are similarly expressing their dissatisfaction.

Before we learned that banks made massive loses, that people became unemployed en masse, and that UK police anticipated a summer of  civil unrest and even riots, there was a pervasive feeling that the media had not just innocently reported on the predicted downturn but contributed to it. How so? Because we know that the markets depend on a constant drip-feed of cloying confidence-building, like a petulant child with low self-esteem. Only today did the markets lose millions – because the traders were shifting nervously in their seats. As a result, when he hear the BBC remind us on an hourly basis that we are in for a rough ride, it had a kind of self-fulfilling quality about it.

I think people recognise a pattern in that potential users might feel sceptical, familiar and then addicted to new tools, only to find the passion fade before the tool becomes the object of derision, cf. Facebook, before something replaces it as the new best thing, cf. Twitter. Twitter will go through the same phase, eventually. Could Twitter withstand competition from the next best thing now – I doubt it, but that idea was unthinkable six months ago.

Like the economy, confidence is clearly a factor. Networks are sustained when users are confident in them – not just their stability but that others use them and find worth in them. Investing time and effort is otherwise pointless. But like the broadcast channels that precipitate a downfall, comments like Scoble’s – and there are other naysayers that agree with him, almost through instinct it seems – might have more influence than otherwise thought.

Is Scoble’s comment and those like it the blood in the water that the sharks will smell? Perhaps it’s just one of many ‘death of’ sensationalist pieces which appear from time to time to create a stir. We’re all familiar with those who consider something over only moments before it began: like chopping down the tall daisies, it’s a phenomenon we’ve all become familiar with. But it’s hard to agree that broadcast news can influence the path of history without admitting that comments such as Scoble’s aren’t ringing the death knell for our beloved Twitter.

So, with apologies to Winston Churchill: Now this is not the end of Twitter. It is not even the beginning of the end of Twitter. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning of Twitter.

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