Friday 10 July 2009

The future of Twitter: From cult to utility

Whether Twitter is a cult or not has been approached before by @jayoatway and more recently and more directly by @jtoeman but the time seems right to go take the debate further.

What is a cult?
In uni my best profs told me to start a paper by defining my terms so let's start with defining what a cult is:
A cult is a cohesive social group and their devotional beliefs or practices, which the surrounding population considers to be outside of mainstream cultures. Wikipedia
Twitter is certainly a cohesive social group and our devotional practices, Tweeting, #ing & RTing seem outside of mainstream culture, for now.

6 reasons Twitter is a cult
This checklist of 6 Cult Characteristics by Eileen Barker helps us examine that definition further - Eileen's list is the simplest so I've used that. Perhaps someone else wants to test the theory against the other more complex checklists?

1) A movement that separates itself from society, either geographically or socially;

Twitter is separated from wider society by both technical (using twitter requires basic web skills) and financial barriers (net access needed i.e. mobile phone or laptop) not to mention the requirement of an extrovert personality, one way or another.

>>> Twitter is clearly separate from society, in technological, financial and social ways.

2) Adherents who become increasingly dependent on the movement for their view on reality;

Twitter's role in #iranelection clearly helped define reality both inside and outside of Iran. To the point that the US State Department suggested Twitter reschedule some downtime so as not to disconnect protestors in Iran from the wider world at a crucial time.

>>> Tweeters are clearly increasingly dependent on Twitter for their view on reality.

Interestingly you might argue that my theory falls over as there is no singular dominating voice commonly found in cults and that we are being influenced by each other more democratically. But the presence of trending and a Western, Liberal, Democratic, Capitalist, Technological bias should go some way to establishing that ideological hegemony and a singular dominating content voice exists on Twitter. And if that is not enough proof then you could argue that Twitter does actually have a singular dominating structural voice. More about that in the next point.

3) Important decisions in the lives of the adherents are made by others;

Twitter is software owned by a company run by key individuals. If we accept as truisms (& I defy you not to) Marshall McLuhan's 'the medium is the message' and Mitch Kapor's (@mkapor) 'architecture is politics' (no doubt we could even squeeze in some Chomsky here if we tried) then we must conclude that @ev, @biz & @jack get to define the space and what is possible in it. So at the architectural layer there is a singular dominating structural voice and at the content layer given the bias outlined above in the previous point one could argue the ideological hegemony is the singular dominating content voice.

>>> Important decisions in the lives of adherents are clearly made by others (and the closer to the structural core one looks the smaller that group of 'others' becomes).

4) Making sharp distinctions between us and them, divine and Satanic, good and evil, etc. that are not open for discussion;

You either tweet or you don't. If you do, you are often [random negative adjective] to those who don't. If you don't you are often [random negative adjective] to those that do.

>>> There are obvious distinctions in society between those who tweet and those who don't.

5) Leaders who claim divine authority for their deeds and for their orders to their followers;

Ok, I'll grant this is a toughie as I don't recall @ev, @biz & @jack ever claiming 'God told them to' but then again, an absence of evidence is not evidence ;) If you were them would you say 'God told you to do it'? Probably not. Plus let's face it 'divine authority' could mean different things to different people. Capitalism could bestow 'divine authority' to those in business. A committment to a higher social purpose could equally grant one a sense of 'divine authority'.

>>> The leaders claim 'divine authority' of a sort.

6) Leaders and movements who are unequivocally focused on achieving a certain goal.

The one thing I always come back to when I think of an all-encompassing common thread connecting the 'founders' and the 'tweeters' is social alchemy, whether it's for good, for business, or for love etc.

>>> Twitter's leaders and movement have a unifying goal.

So Twitter is clearly a cult but is that a good or a bad thing? Being a cult in this context and at this time in the companies development has immense value. Being a cult is a good thing.

But in the long-term Twitter needs to stop being a cult and start being a dominant utility. In the same way email is a dominant utility. Think how powerful Twitter could be at the scale of a dominant utility. To do this Twitter needs to do two things really well and really fast:

1) Twitter needs to be even more platform neutral
Twitter is already hugely mobile and it needs to continue that push off the web into mobile as more people around the planet have access to mobiles than have access to the web.

2) Twitter needs to KISS
I think Twitter is spot on by staying focused on providing the architecture and not getting into the 'interior design' i.e. interface apps.


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