Twitter Jumps The Shark

Last Updated May 26, 2009 10:43 AM EDT

Now this one really caught me off guard: Twitter is going Hollywood.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone confirmed multiple media reports (probably re-Tweeted thousands of times) that, "Twitter plans to launch an unscripted show that will put 'ordinary people on the trail of celebrities in a revolutionary competitive format.'" Never one for half-measures or modesty, Stone suggested that "Twitter's open approach might have the power to transform television."

Twitter users, being nothing if not witty, have already suggested a number of titles, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Twitter, To Kill A Tweeting Bird, Crouching Tiger Hidden Twitter, Tweetlejuice, Burn After Tweeting, and of course, Edward Twitterhands.

But the question is, why? Why take a service that has come to embody Web 2.0 in many ways and turn it into a subject of derision? Twitter, which seems to have as many passionate detractors as supporters, is like a teenager who hasn't even figured out what it wants to be, full of tweets and fury but, perhaps, signifying nothing. It has dethroned Facebook as the poster child for irrational investor exuberance, but also like Facebook, has so far rebuffed potential acquirers in the hopes of proving even greater value than is already attributed to their respective services.

Maybe the move to television is born of desperation fueled by a recent poll showing LinkedIn as the social network of choice for business, with Facebook the runner-up and Twitter a distant third. Indeed, while other social networks have a base from which to work, Twitter is a service in search of a purpose. LinkedIn is the leading social network for business users because it has managed to create a useful service that isn't particularly threatening to employers (and which, in some cases, is being used by businesses to recruit potential employees). Facebook may be too dangerous for business users to adopt in mass, but "changing your status" on Facebook seems to have become a lasting cultural badge. MySpace, the uncool version of Facebook, still boasts 125 million users and has features Facebook doesn't, like the ability to customize pages and add music tracks. Classmates.com has an obvious nostaglia appeal and seems to be the only social network that can successfully charge fees for its service.

Twitter has little potential in the consumer space, and relies on a bevy of power users to evangelize on its behalf. Its potential in the business arena is already under threat from Microsoft, which is testing a similar service called Vine, and Oracle, which has rolled out OraTweet to its developer community. Twitter also has an obvious customer retention problem, which may be why it needs to generate even more growth -- to sustain usership despite enormous churn.

I have no doubt that Facebook will find the right balance between respecting its users and monetizing its site, while LinkedIn and Classmates.com have already settled into their cruising speed. But Twitter is still "trying to find itself," and by the time it does, it's time may be already past. Hence the move to capture the imagination of "ordinary" Americans by associating itself with a reality TV show, I suppose in the hopes that the audience will see Twitter as something more than a means of annoying friends and alienating strangers. By the time the Twitterific show hits the airwaves, though, the Twitter phenomenon may have already run its course, leaving the Twitter founders with little choice but to hire Henry Winkler as the host of their new reality show.
  • Michael Hickins

    Michael Hickins has written about technology and business for BNET, InformationWeek, InternetNews.com, eWEEK -- where he was executive editor from 2007-2008 -- The Curator, Pseudo.com, Multex Investor, Reuters, and Conde Nast's WWD.com. Hickins is the author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, a collection of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. He also published Blomqvist, a picaresque novel set in 11th century Europe, in 2006. Hickins remains passionately interested in the intersections of business, technology, politics and culture, and endures a life-long obsession with baseball. He is married with two children and lives in Manhattan.