Why Twitter Will Never Reach the Mainstream

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In the midst of covering cool startup upon cool startup, it’s been a while I’ve done an opinion piece directly from the heart on Rev2, so here it goes. For the last couple of months, I’ve been trying Twitter (follow me pahleez!). This is partly because of having recently been a Mac switcher and being acquainted with the wonderful Twitterific client and partly to join the conversation, break myself from the skeptic image, and to do what the cool kids are doing. And I’ve come to a conclusion: Twitter will never reach the mainstream demographic. But it’ll be hip with us — the Internet crowd — and in the end, that’s all that will matter.

Here’s the thing. Twitter is based around the idea of informing others what you’re doing at a particular moment. By doing so, you’re joining a conversation, interacting with a community (people who you follow), and participating in a global discussion. But there’s a slight detail that that’s left out when someone attempts to describe Twitter: you need connectivity. A laptop, a phone, e-mail, IM, SMS, a client — you need some form of a connection to the Internet.

Now, for us cool, hip, and tech-savvy folks, it’s a given. Either we’re working all day on our laptop, or carrying an iPhone, or visiting an Internet Kiosk at the airport. We’re connected — we’re totally in it. But that 90% of the rest of the world? Err… not so much. A few minutes a day, an hour, two if they’re lucky, is all the tube-time they get. For the rest, they’re either travelling or working (not at or around a computer) or socializing. Of course, this is changing as more people get high-tech phones and phones have Internet connectivity, but generally not a lot of txting is done even now with our early adopter niche (5% is an estimated figure — see the fantastic ReadWriteWeb data survey on the many ways people Twitter.)

So Twitter faces a problem. It’s not like any other website where you can check e-mail or catch up/add new friends and pimp up your profile or watch the five videos grandma sent you. For the idea to work on a mainstream scale, it needs community, it needs conversation — it needs its userbase to be atuned to what’s happening, and add to it. Of course, right now, that’s exactly what’s happening, and as someone who is online at least six hours a day, I found it useful and interesting and exciting to catch up on stuff that my peers have been twittering and say stuff back, occasionally blurting out random thoughts that come to my mind. People like me is whom Twitter is made for — and it’s a great utility for us. But for that mainstream? I’m not so sure.

So let me make a bold prediction. The tipping point graphs that you’ve seen with Wikipedia and YouTube and Facebook and MySpace? Not gonna happen with Twitter. You can argue that it already has — but I think it corresponds to the early adopter/techie/hip crowd, not the mainstream — and hence has been at a much smaller scale than your regular “tipping point.” Instead, what’s going to happen is Twitter is going to continue to see slow growth over its new users and its current ones are going to participate more, in turn making it into a 1/10 of the usual giant Internet website. Anyone who spends their life on the Internet being connected to tubes most of the day is going to use it and love it. And for anyone who doesn’t, it won’t matter.

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