I run into many skeptics who believe that Twitter is rife with the sort of hype associated with the ascent and crash of Second Life. This is not true. Twitter is suffused with hype, for sure, but it is a much different and more sustainable hype than Second Life.
Here's why: Twitter is light, cheap, open and permanent, whereas Second Life is heavy, expensive, closed and ephemeral. Twitter does things right where Second Life failed.
Second Life is amazingly heavy, requiring lots of computer, lots of bandwidth and a commitment to client software. Second Life is a closed system, a walled city, completely invisible to serendipity and coincidence. Second Life is greedy, pushing avarice and commerce. Second Life is ephemeral and anti-textual, meaning that all of the work and energy one spent on Second Life invariably went away the moment people stopped investing time and money into the platform. While there was a programming language, a scripting language and lots of room for creativity, Second Life was not nearly as agnostic and open a platform as it could have been.
On the other hand, Twitter is open and has a fantastically generous API (an open API as opposed to a closed API, which is why so many developers have created such useful applications on top of the service). Twitter is highly textual, highly contagious and very much real time.
Consider its effect on content discovery. Google, the search king, always wants to know it is up to date, that it is on top of everything. It's constantly insecure that it will lose the war to upstarts. And when it comes to zeitgeist 2.0 -- real-time trend tracking and trend recognition -- Twitter moves even faster than breaking news scrawls and updates.
For a second, let's forget Twitter the website and look at how differently people access and engage with Twitter. Not only can one interface via the web or SMS, but there are also hundreds of desktop clients, iPhone and smart phone apps, and third-party mashups of sites and services.
That's what's funny: A large proportion of the API calls to Twitter these days aren't even made by humans twittering all day long. Rather, they're made by third-party search engines and services offering sundry services: finding friends, tracking news, graphing conversation, tracking searches, plotting trends, collecting metrics, following people, un-following people.
In many ways, the Twitter platform has become almost a fungible input-output flow of data, like IP, tap water, or the electrical mains -- all the creativity and all of the development is happening as a result of this relatively featureless and structure-less raw platform.
Everybody admits that the elegance of Facebook's interface does an amazing job of hand-holding the diverse levels of technological prowess that Facebook users possess. However, Facebook shares many things in common with Second Life: It is a walled-garden, cliquey and hard to cross-pollinate. And finally, Facebook works very hard at defining what the user experience is to the best of its ability in a world where openness and open access can often work for you instead of against you.
The biggest mistake that social network services and online virtual communities make is being too invested in the outcome of how the community will grow and develop. To be successful in community development and community creation, one must be committed to the community and meeting their needs versus being committed to giving them what the community producer thinks the community wants and needs -- often very different things.
At the end of the day, Twitter has always been more like the cardboard box holding the toy than the toy itself. Twitter seems to have built the perfect box to play in and with until you decide what sort of toy you want to build -- and then Twitter makes it possible for everyone and his brother to take a go at building the toy in the box, always just focusing on being the most amusing, easy-to-use, scalable and compelling box possible.
To me, Twitter is a lot like IRC from back in the day. When you install Internet Relay Chat, there are no rooms and there are no members. Only by engaging and by creating rooms and groups does it become truly useful. (Twitter and IRC share the same conventions in terms of using the hash, #, to indicate a self-organizing group that only exists as long as people choose to use it.)
The strange thing is is that Twitter is one of the very few applications -- Web 2.0 or not -- that gets the benefit of everybody trying to train each other via -- believe it or not -- morning talk shows, news spots, news specials, local get-togethers. Oprah! Ellen! The View! I mean, how many dot-com/Web 2.0 platforms have the benefit of that? On the flip side, the downside to Twitter's choosing not to carefully control every aspect of the user experience is that it's not always intuitive or apparent how to use it. The third-party apps may be more useful, but most newbies begin their experience at Twitter.com.
People who don't get Twitter really have not spent enough time with it. There are tons of ways people can use Twitter: Many people use Twitter as an alternative to an RSS feed news reader, following Twitter feeds of news organizations and news alerts, including links and so forth. Twitter doesn't care how you use it: passive reading or active conversation.
In fact, Twitter is such a neutral solution that you might very well forget that you're a member, which is why there might be a perception that over 60 percent of all of the users who visit the site don't go back the next month: Twitter doesn't want to be too much trouble.
~ ~ ~
Chris Abraham, president of the digital-PR firm Abraham Harrison, is a blogger who specializes in social-media marketing with a focus on blogger outreach, blogger engagement and search-reputation management. Chris lives in Berlin and Washington and can be reached via Twitter, Facebook, or email.