If you were to write a brief history of Twitter, its zenith might prove to be surprisingly similar to San Francisco's summer of love, 3 months in 1967 when as many as 100,000 people converged on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
I live a few blocks away from that area, which is still a tourist attraction - I most recently showed some Spanish tourists how to walk to the Haight on their map a couple of rainy evenings ago - the events of that summer 44 years ago having since taken on mythical proportions.
Twitter's free to end users social networking and microblogging service has been available since July 2006, and like the preamble to the famous 'flowers in your hair' summer of 1967, the years leading up to their present day has been an interesting journey. In the early to mid sixties San Francisco was home to a relatively small, eclectic milieu comprised of all sorts of characters from all walks of life, in a cool sixties scene where people knew each other if they were connected by the in crowd.
Some of my neighbors have some great stories about those days, and also about the huge changes that happened as the hippie movement grew. What seems to have happened in the summer of '67 was a mass migration to Golden Gate Park of seekers - people who wanted in on whatever it was that was happening. The result by later that summer was apparently a lot of rather clueless folks camped out in the park hoping something wonderful was going to happen, unhappily including plenty of opportunists eager to take advantage of them.
The motivation back then wasn't particularly from the 'main stream media' of TV and radio (although the usual paranoia about drugs was probably a hugely effective mystique builder as entertainingly seen above) but appears to have been more word of mouth.
Twitter, the digital loose connections word of mouth enabler, has had a similar trajectory in terms of folks joining hoping some magic will happen. In its early days Twitter users were relatively few and tended to be an interesting mix of techie and arty bohemian types, and it was possible to befriend all sorts of interesting folks and follow their conversations - and even interact with them, just like the early 60's in crowd.
Sixties staple bumper sticker philosophy have translated well to the new digital medium Twitter - 'Today is the first day of the rest of your life' and #loveis, along with all manner of soul baring and sharing of in-the-moment emotions. All this is tolerable amongst a small circle of intimates but becomes pretty challenging at scale.
I've had a Twitter account since 2007-09-14 03:16:07 (Twitter is all about slicing and dicing precise information and analytics - unless you are paying, you are the product, just like Facebook), although I didn't start using it much until late 2008. I've been through the delusion of feeling important based on number of 'followers', gave up using the service for the first six months of last year and have experimented sporadically with use models since.
The essence of Twitter is to give and receive useful information with people who interest you, and like the early days of San Francisco bohemian camaraderie, before the onslaught of wannabes and hustlers arrived for the summer of love, confidants were easier to trust when I had a small circle online. In the spirit of using the service as more than a megaphone I currently 'follow' 1,127 people, although I haven't actually been on Twitter for a couple of days as I write this.
These days looking at their river of messages it's as overwhelming as email has ever been, albeit a far richer source of information. A timeless challenge is verifying information shared - while we all trust the veracity of our closer friends, it is all to easy for word of mouth to devolve into Chinese whispers, whether you're camped out in Golden Gate Park hoping to see the Jefferson Airplane or reTweeting a link.
I tried using Twitter a couple of times a day in short bursts recently and got caught out retweeting an attractive infographic on Facebook v Twitter Social Demographics - which turned out to be based on bum data according to @MartijnLinssen who had found the time to check it. Matt Drudge's motto is 'Those in power have everything to lose by individuals who march to their own rules' but as we all know The Drudge Report website was able to be first to break news because it didn't have the same high fact checking standards as the 'mainstream media' - we're all Matt Drudge now or at least we think we are (h/t @Cognitive_surplus).
Between this and Twitter's incompetency - randomly unfollowing people I'm interested in and trust, which can be perceived as a snub - I've reached a tipping point with the service. I don't have time to curate lists of people, fact check or spend time hanging out on Twitter - which tends to be full of shiny, clickable links from the people who interest me - if I want to get any work done. I've basically reached a similar situation to my email accounts, where I skim headers in my main account, currently home to 75k+ 'unread' messages (I keep my business email accounts at zero unread).
The problem is effective filtering to expose yourself to quality, timely information rather than wading through endless gossip, hearsay, opinion and - most bizarrely - world news publishing. It's fun watching the afternoon unfold socializing on hippie hill, but if you have a job don't confuse documenting your work online within collaboration systems designed to make available accurate information to help your colleagues with hanging out on Twitter.
Facebook, with its curiously institutional blue user interface, has always pushed the ethical boundaries as it explores ways to exploit you as a product in their social laboratory: Twitter is just starting down this path as it starts a journey towards attempted solvency through advertising.
The halcyon sixties era supposedly ended with Altamont, the free, shambolic concert that was supposed to happen in Golden Gate Park but got moved to a speedway in the east bay in December 1969. 300,000 people showed up but the event is now best known for considerable violence, including the murder of Meredith Hunter by the Hells Angels, who policed the event despite having badly beaten up Vietnam war protesters in Berkeley a few days previously, and three accidental deaths. (Two caused by a hit-and-run car accident and one by drowning in an irrigation canal -four births were reported during the event, scores were injured, numerous cars were stolen and then abandoned, and there was extensive property damage, according to Wikipedia).
Scale brings problems both good and bad, and the age of innocence on Twitter was long ago drowned out by a fickle, easy come, easy go crowd. The MySpace disaster is a good example of this and a sobering reminder for anyone who thinks 'free' services that exploit the user have any longevity in an ever more rapidly evolving world. The Western world's Generation Y, who many erroneously think of as the Facebook/Twitter generation (Facebook's fastest growing demographic is supposedly women over 40) is shaped by rapid changes in technology and allegiance.
The early social software era is over, even as the venture capital bubble approaches its peak. Just as Matt Drudge's mediocre looking website undermined the 'mainstream media', the challenge of filtering quality out of the torrent of information a generation of recession era publishers are generating is ever increasing. In the web 1.0 world no one knew you were a dog - in our 2.0 world we superficially know everything about you and your network, assuming you are who you say you are, and can hook up to your information fire hoses, assuming it passes our quality test that day.
The bigger question is do we want to, or do we want to stay away from the maddening crowds to seek clarity?