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Twit crit

In his book Learning How to Learn the Sufi author and teacher Idries Shah listed the stages of Western criticism before it can stop:
1. It is impossible.
2. It is possible, but it is useless.
3. It is useful, but I knew about it all the time.

Twitter seems to be somewhere between stage one and stage two. Stage one, in Twitter's case, I guess would be the assumption that while the technology was possible no one would ever, every want to use it. There's some logic to that. I think everyone I've talked to agrees that the first thing they thought the first time they saw Twitter was: "That is the silliest use of technology I ever saw."

Stage two is: anyone who would actually use Twitter is sad and pathetic, and why would you want to read all the time that some friend has just had a cup of coffee or brushed his teeth?

Stage two is: Twitter is a fad. Don't click on that and give Business Week the satisfaction of its own stupidity. The summary: Twitter's retention rate is lower than that of Facebook and MySpace at the same stage in their development. And it cites the survey everyone was talking about on Tuesday before swine flu turned everyone into hypochondriacs, Nielsen Online's study that showed that 60 percent of the people who join Twitter don't come back the following month. (The arrival of Oprah should speed up departures.) As compared to Facebook, with a 70 percent retention rate. I'd say that's deceptive; Facebook probably thinks it's retained me, but in fact I just let Twitter feed it, and ignore it hugely otherwise.

Stage two is: well, yeah, we use it, and our friends use it, and our number of followers keeps growing and we keep following more people, and it's really useful to us, but it's still nonsense, do you hear?

Cut to March 2000, when the stock market crashed. (How much would you give to be having that crash right now instead of the one we're actually having?) "See? We told you the Internet was a fad," people said. That is, people who weren't in the technology business. While watching technology shares plummet, every single technologically literate person, if asked, agreed that the Internet would be bigger in 2005 than it was in 2000 and by a lot. They were all absolutely correct, too.

Twitter is not a fad. Twitter the company may or may not survive, but five years from now platforms to support microblogging - short messages integrated across Web, mobile phones, PDAs, and other clients - will be all over the place. Eventually, every company will have one running on its intranet alongside its Web server, instant messaging, email, and voice calling software and people will be in stage three.

My simplest explanation of Twitter is this: Twitter is where the online party is this week. It was on Internet Relay Chat, Usenet, bulletin boards, CompuServe, mailing lists, CIX, and the WELL in the 1980s and early 1990s; then it was on the Web; then blogs. Now it's on Twitter, which is sucking the life out of a lot of people's blogs the same way online technologies have plundered each other before. The 140-character limit forces people to be succinct; no one message can eat up your time the way someone who buys his electrons by the barrel can on older systems. There are no flame wars (yet) because a) although you *can* be abusive in 140 characters (you pointless waste of space) back-and-forth conversations don't tend to last that long and b) the idiots haven't arrived yet (or if they have, no one follows them). There is just the zeitgeist; if you pick correctly you can follow the stream-of-thought of interesting people you could not access in such compact form in any other way. RSS, be damned.

Others have suggested that the Nielsen study is flawed: are people leaving or have they abandoned the Web interface (featureless and clunky) for desktop clients (featureful and functional) or mobile phones (mobile!)? If they're not posting, does that mean they've gone, that they are lurkers (as are 90 percent of the users of any given online discussion forum), or that they only use Twitter for direct messages (which don't show up to outsiders)? Used over the Web, Twitter does seem a pointless and dispensable entertainment; the key to its usefulness as a tool is the third-party clients and the mobile connections.

Nielsen responded to these criticisms by expanding the study to 30 more Web sites and applications - and got the same result. But in restating that a retention rate of 40 percent is a problem for Twitter the company also proved Twitter's usefulness: the immediacy and breadth of the response forced it to do additional research to stand up its claims. Sometimes value isn't just quantitative.

The other complaint that's showing up this week is that - gasp! - people are posting information to it that is less than wholly accurate. My God, when did that last happen on the Internet?
Surely, we are only a week or two away from tabloid stories that terrorists, organized crime, child abusers, and drug dealers are using it and cries that we must shut down this latest scourge to civilization.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. On Twitter: wendyg.


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