Will Twitter Be The Operating System Of McLuhan's Electric Age?

  • by , Featured Contributor, December 24, 2009
Hoping to gain some perspective on the media industry's extraordinary technology-driven transformation, I'm rereading Marshall McLuhan's "Understanding Media" on my holiday time off here in Mexico. I last read the book almost 20 years ago, just as I was getting involved in interactive media. Having witnessed the explosion of the Internet and digital media in the intervening years, reading McLuhan again now is thought-provoking, eye-opening and fun. This is particularly true when applying McLuhan's analysis to the Internet-driven Web services that are emerging today -- social, real-time and personal.

In McLuhan's world, one of the most significant social impacts of the emergence of the electric age is the introduction of simultaneity. In the preceding mechanized age, media and events used to play out sequentially, over time. Now, with electric communication occurring at the speed of light, our media is consumed and understood in total and at the same time. Media is becoming more holistic, and real-time, since we can process its contents together simultaneously, no longer serially in piecemeal.



What does this mean for the future of digital media and marketing, and why is Twitter in the headline of today's column, instead of Microsoft, Yahoo and many others? In my view, the most important emerging operating systems for the electric age of communication and media -- and, by extension, the companies that build and own them -- are those that enable people to communicate, consume and process content holistically in real time, not necessarily those that help people compute, discover or manage content. The latter companies may ultimately provide people with many very successful and valuable applications, but they won't control the heartbeat or dial-tone of the electric age, its operating system.

How will Twitter own this operating system? Here are my thoughts:

Offer simple, critical service. Great operating systems do a few things, and do them well. Taking a page from how "Plain Old Telephone Service" (POTS) dominated distance voice communication for decades, Twitter is already great at providing real-time status information among tens of millions of people. This kind of service is likely to be critical to people in the future. Twitter's long-term success will depend on how well it keeps delivering and enhancing this simple, critical, value-adding service.

Stay open and add value to others. No only do Twitter users derive value from the service, but thousands of other companies use Twitter and its APIs to add value to their users. The more people and companies that build value-adding services on top of Twitter, the better for Twitter's long-term chances to win. Focusing on this developer community first and foremost is critical for the company.

Be dependable. They weren't perfect, but old-style telephones always worked. Twitter won't need to have 99.999% reliability -- or anything close -- but dependability will matter, particularly to partners that build their businesses on Twitter's operating system and backbone. I don't think that it was an accident that the number #1 communication channel for BlackBerry users to vent during this week's outage was Twitter.

Grow, adding more and more value. Twitter's value and long-term position will be determined by how many users it ultimately serves, and how many services depend on it, not how many people use the Twitter application. Analysts and pundits that focus on usage of as an analog for its growth are watching the wrong numbers.

Be patient about monetization. The Web permits companies like Twitter to create extraordinarily broad and powerful services at very low costs. This is the time that Twitter needs to continue growing its service and value to partners and ultimate users. Monetization efforts should be patient and not rushed. Google, Facebook, Craigslist and many others have proven that monetization will always catch up for the best services.

What do you think about the long-term potential of Twitter? Do you think that it will own the operating system of McLuhan's electric age? Or, have I just been mixing too much tequila with my new-age reading time down here in Mexico?

2 comments about "Will Twitter Be The Operating System Of McLuhan's Electric Age?".
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  1. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., December 24, 2009 at 3:19 p.m.

    This is interesting thinking, though it overstates the value of Twitter as an application. What Twitter does is expose and correlate a few simple, powerful functions of the LAMP stack and the underlying net to do a useful thing. But its functionality is insufficient to call it an operating system. It has more in common, perhaps, with embedded standard functionality in browsers, such as the ability to edit text in textareas.

    Your note is insightful, however, in that it points up the value of exposing functionality and letting folks harness that power to do new things. In this sense, Twitter shares conceptual DNA with web services and other powerful ideas that, in aggregate, could reasonably be said to comprise an OS.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 24, 2009 at 3:50 p.m.

    Time is money. Time is limited. How do you want to spend your limits? We all know what happens when we spend beyond our limits. So with limited time, I would like to spend this time to wish you and your family the best all through the year. Hasta luego !

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