How long will it take for the market to capitulate to the rise of Twitter? You’d think with Oprah and Iran and whatever the next micro-event will become, the so-called pundits of old and new media would stop beating the dead horse of Twitter vulnerability. Certainly they’ve mostly slowed down, overwhelmed by the daily startups, the late night jokes, and the mainstream Macarena over the service.
But still there’s this undercurrent of calling the next Twitter, which of course would vanish if Twitter was verified as the current victor. Instead, we hear that 140 characters is too few, that centralization is good, or bad, or useful but transitional, that realtime is too fast, too hard, impossible to keep up with, that business models are here, never coming, etc. The Twitter industry apparently depends on this chatter to continue to smooth out the flow between celebrity and parochial events.
So let’s see how things would play out if we all agreed Twitter is dominant and will not be defeated by any competitor in ts new space, just like we’ve all agreed Google search continues to dominate. Bing’s good effort only reinforces Google’s invulnerability, and you could make the case that Facebook’s recent usernames and reported default Everyone newstream moves do the same for Twitter. A few diehards posit Identica as a viable competitor, and FriendFeed continues to grow despite its founders’ rejection of their product as a direct competitor.
The central question is whether Twitter is a fundamental service of the new realtime network. The answer is yes. So why does the churn continue over competition for that role? Is it to maintain some rationale for deal flow in the Valley or the larger venture space? Despite a steady drumbeat of new entrants in the client and sub-service ecosystem, the dollars flowing are still relatively small. Partly that’s because cloud computing has made investment more of a marketing than a technology buy.
No, the excitement over realtime is real, and transcends the investment dynamics. It’s more of a classic shift from one era to the next, where we’ll look back in short order (a year at the most) and see the moment this became something more than the story of a company. Looked at through the 20-20 lense of hindsight, that moment may be imminent.
What more do we need to know? The explosive viral nature of Twitter URL citations has upended the television networks. YouTube video of the death of a young Iranian woman spread worldwide over Twitter within seconds, completely outside the mainstream media networks and the control of any government or corporation. Twitter executives responded to pleas from concerned users by canceling maintenance downtime during crucial moments in the Iranian demonstrations. The use of realtime transcended the politics of the technology.
The technology also took a big step forward with the release of iPhone 3GS. Its improved camera, autofocus, onboard editing and YouTube auto upload mandate the proliferation of realtime news and communications. Realtime streaming from events and “Breaking Links” for on demand news will quickly become the way we stay informed. Commentary will flow around aggregations of these streams to provide context and debate. The mainstream networks will not fight this; they will use the same tools, and in the process become indistinguishable from the bloggers they’ve borrowed from.
This is not a slow process. It’s explosive in its ferocity. The Breaking News stories today in the New York TImes iPhone app were dominated by the Iran coverage. Here the newspaper of record provided deep context for the realtime news network, not competing but collaborating with the new model. The pressure on the cable networks to reengage will grow enormously over the next few weeks, as MSNBC and CNN try and provide some intermediation between realtime Twitter news and the TImes’ and BBC’s deep bench.
This is not a story of old versus new. This is the moment when it becomes obvious to a broad audience with enormous buying power that the means of creation and distribution are now open at a level where most anyone can reach a defined audience. These micro audiences are small in number but vast in their overlapping circles of influence. Twitter follow clouds ripple outward via retweets and FriendFeed and Facebook Likes, reaching 2 or 3 degrees of separation in seconds, 6 in minutes. The daily news shows are reruns. The cable networks are Best Of replays endlessly recycling, the Hourly Show.
For months we’ve been experimenting with realtime streaming, realtime chatting, realtime aggregation, realtime filtering. Not everything is in place, but enough for those who see no choice but to engage with the speed of the times. It’s scary to watch how powerful these tools are, what potential they have for misuse or worse. The communities that are forming around realtime technology need to accept both the promise and the threat of this moment. In a realtime world we all live in glass houses, and it’s our job to take care of the garden as if it was our own. Which it is.