Twitter will not grow much larger than it is now

Science & Technology

Why do ideas flourish? What is it about them that makes some great ideas flop, and some bad ideas survive? And vice versa?

In very large part the adoption of technology comes down to the ability of the product to capture the interest of the visionaries (early adopters) and pragmatists (early majority). The rest of the people on the curve encounter the ideas through their interactions with these pioneers, either directly or by their reports. The more enthused they are about a technology, the more hyperbolic the hype from the media, the more we see the technology is use, the more likely it is that product adoption will carry on along the curve.

So along comes Twitter and boy does it fulfill all those criteria! The twitterati are constantly at it! And they LOVE it! The enthusiasm and the loyalty they have so quickly found for this process is literally unprecedented.

Consequently this has prompted a quick growth as the ‘early adopters’ and ‘early majority’ think the ‘innovators’ have just struck solid gold, and there’s no time to be lost!

But I fear we have been overlooking something.

There is a scene in ‘Top Secret” where a man stands clutching a parcel on a station platform in Eastern Germany. As the guards walk by, their sniffer dogs catch wind of something and start barking and jumping up at the man, who looks duly frightened. He is quickly dragged off-screen and shot. Meanwhile the parcel falls to the ground, and the dogs claw it open. It is revealed to be full of dog biscuits.

I think it might be the same for Twitter. I think these technological scouts have triggered a false alarm by finding something which is of great interest and appeal to them, but of very limited use to everyone else.

These innovators like new ideas. They like being ahead of the curve and make a point to keep themselves there. They’re always the first to know because they’re tapped into a lot of nodes. Similarly they share information very quickly, too. In fact, if you were to try to design a tool that was aimed to appeal directly to innovators and early adopters, Twitter would be it….

However these characteristics do not greatly appeal to the early majority, or the rest of the curve. From their perspective, the whole point of having innovators and early adopters is to act as a filter so they only have to get involved with the worthwhile developments. If there’s a technology worth adopting, they’ll hear about it. And in exactly the same way, if there’s something important which someone is Tweeting, they’ll hear about it in another medium. Someone will email it around eventually, or it will hit the newspapers in a few days, or whatever. Generally these are the guys who like to be a little more laissez faire about the whole thing.

This explains the massive growth in new users, and the tremendous confusion about how, exactly, it is that Twitter enriches their lives. Twitter simply does not the utility to give it mass market appeal. It’s a ‘revolutionary technology’ which is almost exclusively useful to the revolutionaries.

The innovators won’t really understand this. “How could one possibly not be curious about everything?! Why don’t you want to know about all this fun exciting stuff?!” They have a point, of course. New stuff is exciting, and new possibilities for connections are great. But that’s just not the way the bulk of the curve thinks.

As mentioned, one of the key characteristics of innovators and early adopters is the speed with which they exchange information. Therefore everyone who’s likely to want to know about Twitter already knows about it and will already have an account.

Thus I predict a slow down in new users, and a corresponding fall in usage by those new users. It has burned fast and bright, but to the rest of the curve it will soon just be a dim beacon held aloft on a distant horizon by the technology scouts seeking out the next big thing.

Update (a few mins later): Ah, let me add a caveat. There is one more group who will adopt it. People trying to sell stuff. People with an agenda to pedal. So expect more and more business take up, for sure.

Update (day after): Interesting, but only tangentially related statistic about iPhone apps which I read recently, which demonstrates the characteristics of those at the front of the curve: most iPhone applications are downloaded and used only on the day they’re purchased, never again.

Update (9th April): After a few conversation about, for example, this in the FT:

Mr Read confessed that like Twitter itself, his agency is still figuring out how to make money from the service. “I could see that Twitter has potential,” he told the FT, “but I didn’t know where the commercial opportunities were and I don’t think anybody does at the moment.”

I’ve said my bit, I’m on record, I think I’ve understood what’s going on, and like recycling, house prices, hedge funds, and so many other things I’ll just wait for the rest of the world to catch up. Though I suspect I’ll probably still be wrong, because they’ll just commercialise it somehow or other (eg simply by paying for the service) AFTER the addiction has reached sufficient numbers and intensity to have enough people to make a massively profitable business.

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons


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