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Rumors at 11

A couple of days ago, The Atlantic pronounced that Twitter is dying. In response, the Washington Post reminded us that it can't be dying because it already died back in 2009. Slate explains that on the contrary, Twitter is about to get a lot bigger.

Journalists! Repeat after me the screenwriter William Goldman's famous line: "Nobody knows anything". Dave Swarbrick survived his obit; why shouldn't Twitter?

The basis of the bang-you're-dead story is, of course, Twitter's most recent quarterly results, which showed a substantial increase in revenues, but a continuing slowdown in the growth of the user base. The shares promptly plunged, because, well, because the price depends on believing that the system will be a giant money-spinner one day, not on anything pesky and old-fashioned like profits. Meanwhile Forbes tells us not to worry about the expiration on Monday of the insiders' share lock-up, which soon-to-be ex-TWOPpers would call hanging a lampshade on it.

I suspect that what The Atlantic's Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Meyer actually mean is that they don't find Twitter as engaging as they used to. Well, neither do I, but in this case three don't make a trend, and there's a simple reason for that: journalists are not Twitter's target audience. Nor should we be if the company wants to survive and prosper. No one ever made (much) money targeting journalists, who are notoriously reluctant to pay for anything and notoriously likely to skip like butterflies on to the next shiny thing as soon as someone tells them what it is. Sure, in its early years Twitter has benefited enormously from the fact that it was practically perfect for journalists, who want quick, short hits of information, curated links to interesting stuff, and a way to push their own work. I spent years begging PR people to send press releases on the backs of postcards and was always laughed at - until along came Twitter, which is exactly that but the new-technology buzz made it seem to them like a great idea instead of a stupid one.

The unique selling points Twitter started with - mobile integration, real-time public messaging - are no longer unique. So there's no question that if it wants to grow to be a sustainable, mass-market company, Twitter will have to change, just like Facebook, Google, and umpteen others before it. To anyone who's used Twitter for a long time - I registered back in 2008 - it's clear that it's in the process of doing just that. And I suspect the company will be happy to leave its early adopters and even promoters behind if in return it picks up a much larger, truly mass audience. Of course, it may not succeed; the Net is littered with the shriveled husks of formerly vibrant communities whose appeal baffles all but a fraction of their most habituated users.

That said, I'm happy to join the throng and voice my particular frustrations. Twitter has never been a good Web-based experience. The Web version is slow to load, clunky to operate, and completely unsuitable for running multiple accounts. It is particularly poor at handling the volume of information you need to process if you're following more than a handful of people.

I didn't start to enjoy Twitter until I found a desktop client I liked: Tweetdeck, which showed me separate accounts, lists, groups, and hashtag searches in adjoining columns, and allowed me to post the same tweet simultaneously to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Then Twitter bought Tweetdeck and began slowly closing out the ecology of third-party desktop clients that fueled its growth in its early years. To take only one example among many, new "token limits" killed off MetroTwit just last month. Meanwhile, Twitter has killed off the desktop (Air), Android, and iPhone versions of TweetDeck". The Web version has some of the features I miss, but it still feels clunky compared to the old desktop client. So I have a weird and rickety setup that involves reading Twitter via a version of TweetDeck so ancient that it can't post or search; post to Twitter via one of two browsers (signed into two different accounts); access it via SMS or Twicca when I'm away from my desk; read only a sliver of what I used to; and enjoy it way less.

Yes: a reasonable person changes alongside the service. An unreasonable person complains that Microsoft is antisocial for not providing security patches for XP and longs for the reading efficiency of Usenet. It's clear that many other people want the features that don't interest me: easier ways to post pictures and video, recommendations for celebrities to follow, and so on. For me, Twitter is stagnant - but that's because *I* am. Changes made to find the mass market are nothing new: they are the same kinds of changes that drove me away from Google in 2010, and would have driven me away from Facebook if I'd ever really embraced it. A *rational* person realizes that they are atypical of the company's desired customers and either decides they'd be better off as a shareholder than a user or pesters the coolest of their friends to find out what's new and fun. Life off-screen, maybe?

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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