Is Twitter just a fad?

The polarising effect of Twitter never fails to amaze and entertain me. At last week’s Civil Service Live event, Twitter had managed to make two entries onto the “cool wall” – one under the heading of “Sub-zero” and the other under the heading of “seriously uncool”: I can think of no better illustration of the divided view on Twitter.

So what are the reasons from those people so adamantly resistant to Twitter’s charms? A lot of people just tell me, “I don’t get it” – and I can absolutely understand that. I didn’t get it at first either, and even now – after a year of sustained use – you’ll still find that my search for explanations of what Twitter is and why it’s so successful dominates more than its fair share of blog posts and del.icio.us links here, so I’m still trying to figure it out.

The other reason people give for not wanting to touch Twitter is usually: “It’s just a fad.” And this one, I confess, does confuse me.

First of all – how do you know it’s just a fad? No one is able to tell this sort of thing with any reliability. I remember sitting around with clients in the late 90s, talking to them about websites, and all too often they would have a pained expression on their face that said “When will this ‘internet’ fad be over with and let us get back to our comfortable world of print publications?” Sometimes they would say this out loud in the middle of meetings, too.

These people would have been delighted by the bursting of the IT bubble a couple of years later which they would have taken to have proven them right. They probably still think they are, even as they do their banking online and log on to Ocado to do their grocery shopping. The bubble might have burst, but the ‘fad’ just took a detour, came in through the backdoor and took over while everyone was congratulating themselves at seeing off the revolution.

But for every fad that becomes a true phenomenon, there are thousands which crash and burn – from Netscape and AOL to FriendsReunited and – it seems on the verge – MySpace. And I’m inclined to think that Twitter will indeed prove an over-hyped short-lived craze and that there’s a good chance that this time next year it will be forgotten and consigned to history. I’m actually surprised that it’s not already drowning in copycats, overrun by spam, floundering in the absence of a business model and overpowered by the hubris.

But so what if it only lasts 18 months? Does that really make any difference? Certainly while it’s here it’s proving to be a game-changer (I hesitate to use the clichéd phrase ‘paradigm shift’, but that’s what it is.) It’s introduced the concept of ‘real time’ into areas like search and blogging, and made crowd-sourcing and citizen journalism a genuine attainable activity for the first time instead of an abstract concept.

Those lessons and advances won’t disappear when and if Twitter burns itself out: if Twitter does flame out and disappear, it will still have made its mark. Twitter DNA will be embedded in the Next Big Thing to come along, so if you’ve turned up your nose at Twitter you’re even more likely to miss the next Next Big Thing to come along, and the next, and the one after that. And if and when you do decide to jump onto one of the bandwagons, you’ll find yourself disadvantaged and behind the pace of everyone who was already up to speed on and genuinely engaged with the previous trend.

By being involved in Twitter or whatever the current ‘fad’ is, you not only give yourself a fair chance of ‘future proofing’ yourself and being in a good position to spot the next trend, you’ll also get to see first hand what works and what doesn’t. And you can take that knowledge into the services and products you design yourself, and maybe the next fad is the one you’ll be at the head of. And maybe it will prove to be not just the next ‘fad’ at all.

Okay, slim odds I grant you. But people play the National Lottery for less chance of success, and given that your only outlay required is to try out a free service with an open mind and see what it’s all about, it seems like a small price indeed for a big reward.

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