Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Twitter, Facebook and the Internet hype machine

Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand Twitter.

Most of the people hyping it now don’t get it either. Twitter has been picked to be the Next Big Thing. It’s a legitimate phenomenon, but after a while buzz turns the corner into hype and the media beats it to death.

These Web sites start out as hip, cool communities that attract early adopters. College students and young professionals join. Links to the service are passed around the blogosphere and the first news stories start to appear.

News coverage builds for a couple months and some producer decides to put it on CNN. The service gets a flood of 30- and 40-something users and (more often than not) suffers catastrophic failure due to high traffic.

The service buys better hardware and the hype machine kicks into high gear. Cable networks devote longer segments to the service and technology columnists start writing “how to” pieces, making sure to remind readers about the “scoop” they wrote about the service six months ago.

The demographic profile of the service starts to shift as bored GenXers and net-savvy Boomers start playing with it at work. Bloggers see their parents and their shift managers sign up for the service and start writing “Is Facebook over?” posts.

Cutting-edge bloggers notice the backlash and immediately cancel their accounts, telling everyone that they’re just “too busy” to keep up with MySpace/Facebook/Twitter right now.

Somewhere in a Cupertino basement, three friends with a laptop invent a replacement for the current hot service, adding one or two new features and clearing all the useless junk off the home page. In the dead of night, they launch and send an e-mail to 20 friends.

Your Mom signs up for Facebook and starts sending you pieces of flair.

Facebook burst its hype bubble last year and is now on a slow downward slide. The replacement for Facebook is sitting on a developer’s laptop somewhere, waiting for its big break. Facebook has been taken over by boring old people (like me) who use it to waste time at work. Their status feeds are clogged with cooking advice and pictures of their kids. The 20-somethings are ready to leave but have nowhere else to go.

Here’s the basic rule of Internet hype: When your product appears on the Today Show, it’s over.

Twitter is at the apex of its hype bubble now. Everybody’s heard of it but normal people don’t really know what it is. The old people have invaded Twitterspace but they haven’t quite ruined it yet.

None of this is inevitable, but Facebook has stumbled over privacy issues twice now and the application gimmicks are starting to crowd out the core functionality of the site. There’s no serious competition for Twitter yet, but it won’t be hard to copy their core idea and merge it with something else.

Twitter is “buzzword of the month” right now, the word everyone in the business world is dropping to convince people they’re hip. “And of course our strategy includes Twitter.”

But the Twitter backlash is picking up steam. I saw my first anti-Twitter video yesterday. Critics are trying to dismiss Twitter streams as a bunch of narcissistic yammering. Normal people hear about the 140-character limit on messages and can’t imagine anything substantial being passed along like that.

But 140 characters is plenty of room to post a Web link or a photograph, or to announce an event. It’s also the perfect size for snappy comebacks and one-line jokes. My favorite quote this week comes from comic book writer Warren Ellis.

He wrote, “Things comics writers don’t get to do: Earn money. Gain respect. Experience dignity. Have friends. Have sex. Stop crying.”

That quote swept through the Twitterverse yesterday. The humor of Twitter posts comes as much from who is writing them as it does from what they say.

Here’s Newt Gingrich yesterday: “I got to hold a penguin at the Omaha zoo, its desert tropical (sic) and nocturnal buildings are world class.”

Not world-shattering news by any means, but a cute image to have skitter across your desktop on a lazy afternoon.

My Twitter feed is a stream-of-consciousness Bob Newhart impression. Yesterday I pitched an idea for Watchmen 2 and asked a poster named @practicalwitch about the availability of heavy duty raincoats.

I won’t be headlining a comedy act at UCB any time soon, but the Internet provides a home for people like me. If you’re funny and photogenic you can post your stuff on YouTube and become an Internet video star. But what about the rest of us? The class clowns. The almost-funny. The Frank Stallones of comedy?

Less than .01 percent of the U.S. population appreciates my sense of humor, but now those people can find me and enjoy my ramblings throughout the day. I can’t actually hear them laughing, but I can imagine them laughing. And if Twittering sucks up 15 or 20 minutes of my productive time, at least I’m not running across the office anymore, testing this stuff on guys at work.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

March 20, 2009 at 18:29

Posted in Columns, Facebook, Twitter

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