Cafe Witness

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Thankless Job of Being Ahead of the Curve

Oregon Trail Pano

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.

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  • My podcast collaborator and friend Christine Cavalier (@purplecar) talks about various social media enclaves as mini-cultures; places with their own customs, manners and argot. I think of them in a similar way, like a "scene". The hipster scene in Bed-Stuy. The club scene in South Beach. There's a group of people who find, or rather define, the new cool places to go and hang out. When Fred and Doris from East Jalopy start showing up at your used-to-be-cool bar, it's time to go. I've been feeling like that for a while about Twitter. As Yogi Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

    By Blogger Joe C, at 5:36 AM  

  • To all those people whining about the mainstreaming of social media, "Get over yourselves!"Coming from the gaming development industry, I've seen our hardcore gamer demographic evolve into soccer moms playing Wii Sports. Did I complain and try to futilely fight against widespread adoption of gaming by the masses? No, I embraced it and developed gaming exercise systems to promote senior fitness.

    Being bitter about having your exclusive little clique absorbed by the mainstream is not very becoming of an early-adopter. Either embrace change or move on to the next platform. In any case, do something, and maybe one day your name will be written in the history books.

    By Blogger Jia, at 2:08 PM  

  • If @Scobleizer has anything to say about it, the next Twitter will be (or already is) FriendFeed.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 2:18 PM  

  • In order to be able to survive in this modern day society of what the next obsolete technological widget will be, you need to be willing to embrace the transformation of the landscape in which you built your platform on.

    Thus, if it is becoming a saturated market and thus is becoming more irrelevant of a widget that what it was initially built for... do something about it.

    "If you build it, they will come" By THEY I mean OPRAH!!!

    By Blogger AndrewWirfel, at 2:27 PM  

  • Being useful is the fastest way to die. WOW, what a prescient thought. Never thought of it, but very true.

    By Anonymous Writer Dad, at 2:50 PM  

  • Twitter has become your hand me down brand.

    I love this post and I couldn't agree more.

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  • I think that the people should be so careful about the mom using Facebook.Many people use the social networks to injure the honest people there!!22dd

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