Lamenting the Twitter That Did Not Become

What makes Malcolm Gladwell's recent attack on Twitter so devastating is that he finds just the foil to reveal how banal Twitter's mission has become.

Readers of this blog are more likely to associate the acronym "CRM" with the phrase "customer relationship management," but among the moons that orbit Gladwell "CRM" stands for "Civil Rights Movement." As in, THE Civil Rights Movement. For our nation and among the living generations, no cause has been more noble and more worth the struggle. We're probably yet living in the third act.

Gladwell is a canny provocateur. He uses references to the CRM to storm Twitter's pretense to civic relevance, and Twitter is not even there to surrender because it has quit that field. Here's how Twitter perceives itself, in its latest blog post:

"Whenever there's a new movie release, a TV show premiere, a big football game, or a breaking news story, people are talking about it on Twitter. With the new Twitter, they're seeing glimpses of it, too, because photos and videos are now presented as part of the core Twitter experience."

Scary bird Kim Brown You read that, and Gladwell's Wednesday 3pm Eastern opening chat time quip ("Is twitter good for anything? Sure. It's a great way to keep in touch with the thoughts and activities and random observations of people who have a twitter account.") isn't as obtuse and willfully incurious as it would have been a year or two ago.

Time was -- months ago -- Twitter was a business that wasn't hungry for mass commercial validation. The slogans were improvised ("what are you doing?"), and users had a heady sense that no one yet knew what Twitter was, where it might lead. The founders of Twitter admitted that we, the users, were determining what Twitter meant.

Something got bought on the way between 15,942,837 and 100,000,000 users.

Here's something else that would have been preposterous for Gladwell to say two years ago, something that, if Twitter remains committed to selling short its promise, may turn out to be straightforward:

[Comment From Rachel] Malcolm, the twitterverse has noted that you hardly use twitter at all- how does this influence your opinion of the service and what it can be used to accomplish?

Malcolm Gladwell: I have nothing against Twitter. And I'd use it if I had more time. . . Here's the deeper issue for someone like me or, for that matter, anyone contemplating using tools like Twitter. What is it you want to accomplish? Do you want a broad audience? Or a deep audience? In other words, would you rather do the best possible job engaging with a small but focused audience. Or would you rather spend your marginal hour reaching a large audience on a superficial level? There are lot of situations where the latter is a reasonable choice--like if I'm selling something, or announcing an event, or sharing a small but crucial bit of information. But I'm interested in exploring ideas in depth with the (small) group of people willing to geek-out with me. That makes strategy A a better choice.

The "strategy A" that Gladwell assumes Twitter isn't is one of the very things Twitter might have been!

Photo by Kim Brown, from the Washington Trails Association's site.

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