Eric Schmidt is an old dude who just doesn't get Twitter. That groupthink consensus emerged after the Google CEO dismissed the fast-growing messaging service at a conference. But he missed the real critique Twitter deserves.
That's the problem with Twitter. Everyone feels like they have to be an expert about it, even if they clearly don't use it, like Schmidt. Barbara Walters, who managed to take down Twitter by mentioning it on The View, crowed on a radio show about how she killed the website without ever having used the service. But understanding Twitter's true flaws requires experiencing the pain of constant exposure.
Twitter "is a poor man's email system," Schmidt said at a Morgan Stanley technology conference Tuesday:
In other words, they have aspects of an email system, but they don't have a full offering. To me, the question about companies like Twitter is: Do they fundamentally evolve as sort of a note phenomenon, or do they fundamentally evolve to have storage, revocation, identity, and all the other aspects that traditional email systems have? Or do email systems themselves broaden what they do to take on some of that characteristic?
I think the innovation is great. In Google's case, we have a very successful instant messaging product, and that's what most people end up using.
Twitter's success is wonderful, and I think it shows you that there are many, many new ways to reach and communicate, especially if you are willing to do so publicly.
There's a reason for Schmidt to bash Twitter. Credulous Twitter fanboys are speculating wildly that the service, which users have occasionally used to post babblingly incoherent, uselessly shortened news flashes, may morph into some kind of real-time news search engine. Such a search engine could one day threaten Google's search franchise, they reason, since Google is not particularly useful at finding things at a pace that satisfies the ever-shortening attention spans of today's workplace Ritalin addicts.
The Internet's army of freelance factcheckers immediately seized on Schmidt's boneheaded error, in which he — gasp — misstated the 140-character limitation on Twitter messages as 160 characters. (They are 140 characters long, or 160 characters including usernames, so they can be transmitted via text messages to cell phones.)
But what Schmidt really missed is precisely what is most noxious about Twitter. Unlike email, which typically goes to a defined set of recipients, Twitter messages are posted on the Web for all to see. It's a way of cc'ing the entire Internet, in other words, even when — especially when — a communiqué ought to be personal. Instead of emailing customer service, Twitter users bitch out corporations in public, and expect a customer-service rep to run to Twitter to their needs. (The advice they dole out usually ends up being to email customer service.) Instead of having thoughtful conversations one-on-one, Twitter users pose, debate, and play to the crowd.
It's precisely because Twitter is unlike email that it has reached a critical mass among the Internet's rowdy commenters, who are glad for the soapbox and relieved of the responsibility for any form of expression that takes more than a couple of artful zingers. Members of the media, too, seeing their old platforms dissolve, are eager to dive into anything that gives them the promise of a sustained audience. But for those outside the attention economy, where eyeballs have some mystical value and where "followers" are a way of keeping score, Twitter's just another inbox to check. Maybe Schmidt had that right after all.