The Thankless Job of Being Ahead of the Curve
This week, the world was all abuzz about the mainstreaming of Twitter thanks to Ashton Kutcher & CNN, Oprah Winfrey, USA Today and countless other "names" who've taken up the habit of Twittering.
Of course, by "world," I mean the relatively self-obsessed cadre of regular Twitter users -- myself among them -- who thought social media was a pretty cool club until the stars showed up. Like the aesthetic suckerpunch that comes from seeing the captain of the football team wearing your favorite indie band's t-shirt, the mainstreaming of any subculture is a tragedy for those who were there first. In one seemingly innocuous act, whatever exclusivity there was that bound you all together is now eroded. It's like your girlfriend taking a sudden interest in Star Trek -- or your mom using Facebook.
You know who wants your mom to be on Facebook? The people who create the service and the people who profit from the service.
You know who doesn't want your mom to be on Facebook? The people who use the service -- or, at least, the ones who used it enough to make it useful to your mom in the first place.
Being Useful Is the Fastest Way to Die
In order for any business or service "succeed" -- social media included -- it has to go mainstream. This means it has to be considered useful (or at least interesting) by the masses. But since "the masses" tend to be less interesting than the individuals who comprise them, when something does generate a wide appeal, it tends to do so at the expense of the individuals who partly defined themselves through it. And as the originators of a subculture leave, they take something with them: the originality, eccentricity or unconventional wisdom that made that subculture worth noticing to begin with.
So now, as blogging, podcasting and social networking become commonplace, the power centers behind these tools shifts away from the geeks who'd started them and becomes concentrated within the same media conglomerates for which these tools were originally conceived as an antidote. (This is not unlike veteran political skewer Al Franken eventually being absorbed into Congress.)
How Many Coonskin Caps Is One Fail Whale Worth?
What we've been seeing this week is the lamentation of hardcore Twitter users who've realized that their much-maligned (and yet, paradoxically, much-loved) service may be on the brink of becoming mainstream -- and, simultaneously, irrelevant.
If all these Twitter pioneers sound bitter, it's because they realize society is now waiting for them to pull up their stakes and migrate away from Twitter, on toward some other as-yet undiscovered social media country... that can be colonized and mined for profit, by others, in another 2 or 3 years.
Meanwhile, any book written decades from now about the success of Twitter will almost surely mention Ashton Kutcher's name, but it probably won't mention yours -- even though you were there first.
Image (taken along the Oregon Trail) by Fokket.