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Guest post: Sorry tech apostles – law firms do get Twitter (that’s the whole problem)

People occasionally ask me if I tweet (I don’t) and what role I think Twitter has in law firm marketing (none).

I probably owe an explanation.

I believe Twitter has always been a niche service and always will be; it will never go mainstream in the way that (say) Facebook or LinkedIn has. Lately I’ll take that a step further: I believe Twitter’s mindshare has peaked, that it’s on a path to marginalisation. and that (if I’m right) all this is one of the healthiest recent developments in the online Zeitgeist.

These thoughts have crystallized in the past week or 10 days as Twitter announced its most recent earnings, disclosimg that new user growth has slowed dramatically and that its existing member base is using and engaging with it less. Adding insult to injury, when the IPO ‘lockup’ period expired earlier this week, insiders dumped shares in massive numbers, driving the stock down nearly 20% in a single trading session. This vote of no confidence has also been reinforced by widespread departures of key members of the original team.

The latest marketing strategist just brought in to turn this around—a very capable and accomplished fellow, judging by his background, who at a young age impressed even the notoriously harsh and judgmental Steve Jobs—was interviewed in The Wall Street Journal a few days ago and with perhaps unintentional acuity diagnosed Twitter’s problem very simply: “People don’t get it.”

Actually, I think they totally get it. That’s the problem.

When Twitter was new, bright, and shiny, I attended a presentation (more than one, I’m embarrassed to say) by Twitterati apostles designed to explain all the wonderful things Twitter enabled you to do. I never understood exactly what they were (‘information’ is not a scarce or novel benefit) or, worse, why I should care.

Don’t get me wrong: I immediately created an account (more than one actually), offered up a few desultory Tweets to the ether, found a few people to follow, and grasped the vernacular of @ and #. Those things weren’t the issue. The issue was that at the conclusion of each of these presentations I would ask the speaker what the real benefit of Twitter is and the reply always amounted to, ‘Once you get it, you’ll get it.’

Now, I have spent a fair amount of time inside new companies and around them and this distillation of the message to potential new customers— ‘When you see the benefit you’ll see the benefit’—is not a promising way to start. It’s a worse way to end.

As I said earlier, I think Twitter’s problem is precisely that people do get it. It’s a medium for tossing hastily formed brain exhaust over the transom into the vicinity of who knows where. No wonder celebrities keep blowing themselves up on it.

To be sure, I have also heard occasional stories of friendships, or at least connections, made through Twitter across ideological divides based on mutual serendipitous discovery. This is to be celebrated, but it’s the exceptional event.

When one is discussing the overall social value of a technology or a service, you are obligated to focus on its general, center of the bell curve, impact, and not on outlier special cases. And it’s in that connection that I mentioned that I thought the marginalization of Twitter would be ‘a good thing.’

That’s not because I celebrate high-profile (or low-profile) failures to meet expectations, but because Twitter coarsens public discourse. 140 characters may be enough room for a fortune cookie, a bumpersticker, or a taunt in a political debate, entirely unfit for accumulating evidence, developing an argument, or considering pros and cons (much less nuance). The one thing we’re desperately in need of more of—in our political, socioeconomic, business, and artistic discourse—is critical thinking. If the apathetic mainstream response to Twitter reflects that realization at some unexpressed level, so much the better.

With malice towards none: It may be that Twitter has met the enemy.

Adam Smith, Esq. provides high-end consulting services to the legal profession, you can read the blog here