Monday, July 21, 2008

Twitter won't last -- and what that means for us

Twitter won’t last. It’ll be gone in two years. And the reasons why give us insight into digital journalism and how it will evolve.

Twitter is a hit, right? It’s caught on so fast that usage has crashed its servers. A superficial assessment would conclude that they really got something there. And that they’re so big and so far ahead that no one will ever be able to catch up. In other words, they came out of nowhere and cornered the market on this thing that no one even realized was a product. Kind of like Crocs, you might say.

But that superficial assessment would be wrong.

Here’s what a more sophisticated analysis would conclude:

-- Twitter accidentally discovered a latent need. Several actually. There was a need out there for what Twitter provides. Once Twitter it appeared, and people started playing with it, they discovered it was incredibly useful. And they discovered ways of using it that probably even the Twitter creators never imagined. Not just to update friends on the latest flavor of oatmeal they're eating. But to coordinate social gatherings on the fly. To broadcast messages from local emergency services. To do market research for consumer products.

-- No company could have identified these needs through market research alone. Companies, especially large ones, generally use market research to discover new product opportunities. But you couldn't have discovered the opportunity for Twitter, as it's designed today, through market research. That's because people aren't always good at articulating (or imagining) what would make their lives easier. Sure, they can tell you: "The buttons on my cell phone are too small. Their hard to push. Can you make them bigger?" Or, they can tell you: "The laces on my running shoes always break. Can you make them stronger?"

But it probably wouldn't have occured to people to say, "Give me a better way to meet up with my friends when I'm out on a Friday night." Because they had cell phones. And as far as they knew, those worked pretty well. You can't imagine a 63" plasma TV when you have a 12" color box that seems pretty nifty in comparison to the black-and-white box you just got passed on to your little brother. And they wouldn't have said, "Give me a better way to do market research." Or, rather, they couldn't have given you enough information in that request that your product designers would have read the research report and said, "A-ha! Let's build a Twitter." Sometimes you can only discover what people need by giving them something to play with and seeing what they do with it.

-- Nevertheless, even though Twitter accidentally discovered something that others missed, and even though so many people have taken to it, and even though its growth rate is so high that its infrastructure can’t keep up with usage, that doesn’t mean that no one else will be able to catch up.

That’s because Twitter isn’t a mature product. It’s an experiment. No, the Twitter folks probably don’t see it that way. But people who study how new technologies emerge and evolve probably do. It's better to think of Twitter as an experiment than a mature product because it's not like the creators envisioned Twitter to be what it has become. Its users have made it what it is, not its creators. Like many inventors, they probably just said, "Hey, I kind of sort of an idea of something that might be useful. Since it's not particularly difficult to build, let's just throw it out there and see if anyone uses it."

The output the Twitter experiment, however, is not a fully fleshed-out product. Rather, the discover is an insight: The insight about the latent needs it is fulfilling. Unfortunately, that insight doesn't give Twitter a competitive advantage over would-be competitors. It's not proprietary. Anyone can use it to build their own Twitter-like tool.

And they probably are. Because Twitter doesn't have any other advantages that would normally keep competitors out.
  • Twitter is not best-in-breed. OK, it's currently the only-in-breed. For now. But the thing is, despite all the myriad ways Twitter is being used, the application probably doesn't meet them as well as it could. After all, it wasn't designed with those uses in mind. Someone who designs an application that meets those needs more easily and more conviently will exert a strong pull on current Twitter customers.
  • It won't be particularly expensive to switch. If you come out with a better car than the one I have now, I have a big reason not to switch: The money it's going to cost me to buy the new ride. But Twitter is free, and a competitor will similarly probably be free, at least at first.
  • It won't be particularly difficult to learn how to use other Twitter-like applications. If you come up with a better corporate database application than the one I have now, I have another big reason not to switch: The amount of time it will take my staff to learn and become proficient at the new tool. But how much simpler an application can you get than Twitter? How much more difficult could a competitor be?
  • My Twitter buddies will probably adopt the new tool too. If you create a better country club than the one I attend now, I have a third big reason not to move: All my friends are at my current club and few, if any, will switch to the new one. Since it will be easy to acquire and learn the new Twitter-like app, my Twitter buddies will almost all adopt it when I do.

Given that Twitter has no meaningful advantages to give a competitor pause, a Twitter-killer will almost certainly emerge sometime in the next two years. Probably sometime in the next year. If I know anything about Silicon Valley, I can guarantee you that someone is already working on it. Probably many someones.

So what does this have to do with journalism? A few things:

-- The forms and practices of online news are going to evolve similarly quickly. A tool or an approach that works today will quickly be overtaken by a better one that emerges tomorrow. This is a foreign idea to people who’ve long worked in an industry where the canon was pretty much fixed for 50 years, or more. People who succeed in the online world will be the ones who have the flexibility of mind to embrace new ways of doing things but not make the mistake of believing that the new thing is the new canon. Take blogs, for example. The ways of using blogs to connect with readers are evolving. Any newsroom with a blog bible that isn't open to frequent revision will soon find its blogs losing currency.

-- Every new thing online newspeople try is an experiment. And the purpose of each experiment is not solely to see if the new thing will drive traffic. Creating traffic-drivers is important, of course. But more important is to understand why the new thing is driving traffic. What previously unidentified or unaddressed reader need(s) is the new thing meeting? Once you understand that, brainstorm: What could we do to specifically address that particular need(s) better than the old new thing is? Then create something new based on those insights. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

-- Newsrooms must experiment. It's no good fuzting at the drawing board and only releasing something to the world once it's fully baked. Because there's no way to get most things right until you've let your customers (readers) play with them. News organizations need to get in the habit of throwing something together, tossing it out there, analyzing the results, and using the resulting insights to inform the next revision.

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