Twitter: This Era's Hula Hoop

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The novelty of Twitter is being able to broadcast a sentence or two to a few people (or a few thousand people) instantly and at any time from your cell phone, PDA, or computer. There's little time (and no space) for thoughtful analysis or reflection; the value of Twitter rests in its scope and immediacy.

When it was first available, it seemed ingenious and amazing.

In 2008, Twitter was credited with helping a man get out of a foreign jail: A California college student named James Buck was arrested during an anti-government demonstration in Egypt. As he was hauled off to jail, he managed to Twitter one word: "arrested." That Tweet (as the technoliterate call it) immediately notified his friends and family, who began contacting the authorities for his release. Though the incident was widely seen as an example of how useful Twitter technology can be, it's really a lesson in how useful cell phones can be, since Buck could simply have called his friends instead of Twittering on the way to jail. (To police worldwide, the lesson is to simply confiscate suspects' cell phones.)

Most Twitterers don't use the service to get sprung from jail; instead they update friends and fans with routine updates about the spectacular banality of their everyday lives: shopping, doing laundry, meeting friends, reading other people's Tweets.

Face it: Twitter is a fad, and like all fads it will fade away. The novelty of real-time micro-blogging in 140 character bytes will lose its appeal sooner or later. A few weeks ago, when Oprah (however awkwardly at first) dipped her toes into the burgeoning pool of Twitterers, some saw the end of the Twitter phenomenon written on the virtual walls of the Interwebs. Blake Smith, an Atlanta-based programmer and self-professed Twitter fan, said, "The publicity storm surrounding Oprah's joining Twitter in April first made me suspect that Twitter may have jumped the shark — at least as a haven for the tech-savvy addicted to now-based communication." If Oprah can do it, then anyone can do it — and therein lies the problem.

The public loves novelty, to be part of the latest craze. Sociologist Joel Best, in his book "Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads," describes the process by which fads take hold of the public. First something new springs on the scene, and is soon embraced by "early adopters" and trendsetters (such as celebrities). The phenomenon snowballs, gathering more and more adherents who want to be among the in-crowd; but as the snowball gets bigger, it loses momentum. Finally, according to Best, "Fads fade not so much because they fail as because they age, lose glamour associated with novelties, and become boring."

While pop culture pundits (not to mention Twitter fans) would have you believe that everybody's doing it, Twitter is only used regularly by about 5 million to 6 million people, depending on who's counting. Twitter use is skyrocketing, but according to a recent Neilsen report, it is failing to lure back repeat users. More than 60 percent of Twitter users do not sign up for the following month; they join up to see what the buzz is about, Twitter for a few weeks, and then decide that no one really needs to know what they are doing throughout the day.

Because Twitter is a technological application instead of an object, it is not exactly in the same fad category as Hula Hoops, parachute pants, and those Macarena CDs you have stacked next to the Thighmaster in the garage. Don't fret, Twitterers: The service will be around for a while — at least until the gadget-and-gizmo-going crowd jump on the next generation of applications with initially amazing (but ultimately somewhat dubious) usefulness.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. He is not cool enough to Twitter, but has recently given in to the Facebook fad. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is