Twitpocalypse Now

A social media fad’s slow death.

Just in case anyone missed it, Friday evening marked the Twitpocalypse. Glad to see you all survived.

Countless pundits and bloggers have been saying for months that Twitter has jumped the shark; that trend was only exacerbated by the recent Time Magazine cover declaring that this newly popular microblogging thingamabob is “changing the way we live.” (Recall that Time has used its cover to spotlight hard-hitting news and breaking trends such as the 1999 wave of Pokémon “addictions.”)

The Twitpocalypse was a different kind of impending Twitter doom — a viral “semi-hoax” pointing out that some poorly-designed software would crash once the world’s total Twitter output exceeded the seemingly random number of 2,147,483,647 tweets. (Certain kinds of database fields are programmed to count only that high, for reasons that others could probably explain better than I.) Some of that software did indeed crash, but most of it either had no problems or was fixed quickly thereafter.

The more significant thing has been what’s happening on Twitter in the meantime.

I fell out of Twittering for a few weeks because I was dealing with my own non-Twitpocalypse-related software malfunction. I can’t say I really missed Twitter during that time. But I logged back on a week ago and tried to get caught up — and found I hadn’t missed much.

Many of my Twitter contacts had slowed down or stopped posting their 140-character missives. A bunch of others had stopped bothering to see what I posted. It was as though anybody who had better things to do had simply ascended from the Twittersphere, leaving behind only those of us who have no life.

It wasn’t the Twitpocalypse; it was the Twitter Rapture. The Twapture, maybe.

As CNET columnist Caroline McCarthy noted in an astute column the other week, Twitter (unlike Facebook) is exceptionally high-maintenance. Cutting through the massive static of a thousand tweeters banging on a thousand keyboards takes a lot of time and effort. We really shouldn’t be surprised that many people drop it almost immediately.

Twitter — or at least its concept of short, realtime bursts of information blasted around the Internet — is probably going to stick around for a long time, but I suspect the number of people who use the service will continue to shrink. Twitter will increasingly become a tool for those who have to promote themselves or their organizations, those who are trying to disseminate news, and those who are trying to connect with their many fans. Everyone else will just quit.

That kind of a more limited forum could still be useful, but I’m not sure Twitter will ever become the populist, essential, and ubiquitous online universe that its most eager promoters envision. Twitter’s pop culture flareup had its fun moments; now we’re seeing it fade to a persistent but much fainter afterglow.

UPDATE (June 17): In light of Twitter’s reported use in the ongoing protests in Iran, I’ve published another piece adding to my thoughts here.

Article © 2009 by Michael Duck