Will Media Backlash Doom Twitter?

Doubtful. Mainstream Media Do Not Have A Good Track Record On Calling Fads.

My 81-year-old father, who uses his MacMini to play solitaire and who lives in rural/agricultural southwest Georgia, asked me about Twitter over the weekend. That’s penetrating the mainstream.

And yet the incumbent backlash has begun, on the heels of Twitter’s launch into popular culture courtesy of Oprah. It’s “a fad” according to Business Week. Nielsen claims it is unlikely to ever have more than 10 percent of all Internet users and, therefore, cannot be successful. Then there was last week’s screed from Maureen Dowd.

So I decided to do a little research. Check out what the popular press had said about earlier communication technologies.

In 1994, The (London) Independent had this to say about the Internet (1):

A truly amazing amount of drivel has accompanied the arrival of the Internet into the popular consciousness… Also arriving is a vast amount of hype and an instant pop culture with its own distinctive language. Remember the arrival of CB radio in the Seventies? It’s a bit like that, only sillier….

As with CB and other fads, acres of newsprint and whole new magazines are being devoted to the subject. Some of it cheerfully emulates the writing of Wired, a seriously cool Californian magazine devoted to the Internet. Wired’s content reminds one of the saying about tipping America on its edge: everything loose rolls towards California.

Of course, if it’s not a “fad” then it must have a negative connotation due to sex. From The Ottawa Citizen, also 1994 (2):

Sex is the most popular buzz on the community computer network, a National Capital FreeNet survey revealed last week. Almost half of the Top 20 most popular discussion groups are suited for adults-only. That revelation had the digital city taking inventory.

In 1995, the (Raleigh) News&Observer called Salon.com “a fad” (3). The (London) Guardian reported that “home computers and the Internet are not the start of an inevitable information revolution, but a fashionable fad which many people try and then drop when the novelty wears off” (4). And the Washington Times called the Internet a “gimmick” and a “fad” but acknowledged that it had “promise” (5).

Of course, the network computer introduced in 1996 was truly premature and deserving of skepticism.

By 2006, reporters were talking about a “crossroads” but shining a more optimistic light (6):

The indisputable fact remains that as a communications vehicle, it cannot be matched, and that alone guarantees it a significant role in our collective future. As a social and technological phenomenon, the Internet is, at a bare minimum, the telephone of the 21st century. It will very likely be much more than that as well.

Fast-forward to 2002. The NY Times wonders if blogs are a “fad” (7):

In the last two months, the universe of Weblogs has grown more quickly, with mainstream media analysts praising ”blogs,” as the sites are known, for bringing a new type of expression to the Internet, and perhaps undermining the hegemony of global media giants.

But is this a truly new media species, with the power to command the attention of big Internet media companies? Or is it simply that in this, the Internet’s fallow period, anything even remotely buzzworthy is given more of a spotlight than it deserves. Is the Weblog, in other words, a fad that is destined to fade?

We now know the answer to those questions.

This dismissal of communication technologies “not invented here” echos the skepticism faced by the telegraph in the mid-1800s, as documented by Tom Standage in The Victorian Internet (8):

By 1865, telegraph cables spanned continents and oceans, revolutionizing the way countries dealt with one another… The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates and dismissed by its skeptics. And attitudes toward everything from news gathering to war had to be completely rethought.

It’s 144 years later, and we are in the midst of another rethinking. Twitter seems very much like a public telegraph, one where the sending and receiving of the telegram is almost instantaneous and where it can be public, for all to read. Just as the telegraph transformed journalism, so will Twitter (or other technologies built on SMS). There are thousands more “citizens” than “journalists” … and breaking news will be increasingly crowdsourced, covered by Johnny-or-Jane-on-the-spot, which leaves “journalists” with the tasks of context and fact-checking.

If your goal with Twitter is to have interesting interactions with people … to experience a bit of serendipity … to stay in touch with people who aren’t in your immediate geographical space … then you’ll have fun there. Twitter is a community, it’s about conversation not deliverables. And that community is not a fad.

End Notes:

  1. Wheatley, M. (1994, December 5). Viewpoint: Even sillier than CB radio? The Independent. London (UK). Accessed 30 April 2009 via Proquest Newspapers database.
  2. Kainz, A. (1994, October 5). Pervnet battles an image problem. The Ottawa Citizen. Ottawa, Ont. Accessed 30 April 2009 via Proquest Newspapers database.
  3. Weise, E. (1995, December 12). On-line magazines: Fun fad but hard to read in the tub. News & Observer. Raleigh, N.C. Accessed 30 April 2009 via Proquest Newspapers database.
  4. Bannister, N. (1995, November 1). Novelty of the net begins to pall as public prefers playing games. The Guardian. London (UK). Accessed 30 April 2009 via Proquest Newspapers database.
  5. Dreher, R. (1995, July 10). Candidates troll for voters on the Internet `Gimmick’ may be necessity before long. Washington Times. Washington, D.C. Accessed 30 April 2009 via Proquest Newspapers database.
  6. Rowland, W. (1996, June 13). Internet at a crossroads. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont. Accessed 30 April 2009 via Proquest Newspapers database.
  7. Tedeschi, B. (2002, February 25). Internet experts wonder if Weblog technology is a powerful new media species, or just another fad. New York Times. New York, N.Y. Accessed 30 April 2009 via Proquest Newspapers database.
  8. Standage, T. (1996). The Victorian Internet, back cover. Phoenix Books.
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2 thoughts on “Will Media Backlash Doom Twitter?

  1. As usual, I’m sure some middle ground will be found for Twitter (or whatever its legacy might become). The media normally seems to fall into the two extremes of love or hate such developments, the simple hero/villain formula that underpins most media narrative.

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