I’ve been thinking lately about the tech industry’s occasional tendency to declare a world change prematurely. Originally I was sparked into this thinking by Paul Graham’s article on “How TV Lost”, which took it as a fait accompli that despite the nascence of IPTV, web video and entertainment convergence generally, TV (and its accompanying ecosystem) had already lost, it just didn’t know it. It was a provocative piece and got me thinking.
Whether I agree with the Paul’s conclusion or not (I don’t necessarily, although I agree with much of the underlying logic), it’s what this represents that really got me thinking. We as an industry are quick to see “up and to the right” and extrapolate ad infinitum. In other words, we see a trend with spectacular velocity and we are quick to connect the dots to a massive, game-changing shift. And it sometimes happens, but it usually doesn’t.
I’m reminded of the discourse that emerged after Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997. Tiger came in as a 21-year-old phenom and utterly blew the field away. I’m not much of a golfer, but they tell me that when you win a major by 12 strokes (largest margin since 1870) and set the course record at a legendary course, it’s pretty good. (Thanks Wikipedia)
But what really struck me was some of the discussion I heard afterwards. “The sport is over” summed up what a lot of people thought after seeing Tiger’s performance. The world of golf had changed and no one else would stand a chance for the next 25 years. Tiger was so far and away superior to everyone else that if you’re going to watch, you mostly just watch to see what he’ll do.
So what actually happened? Tiger is arguably the greatest golfer of all time. He’s second all-time in majors and third in PGA event wins. Youngest ever to win the Grand Slam. Highest-paid athlete in the world last year. Currently ranked #1. Tiger is absolutely, incontrovertibly for real. And yet… he doesn’t win every tournament. He had a few years when he worked on his swing and wasn’t dominant. He got hurt. In other words, he’s a very very gifted, but nonetheless human, golfer. The sport goes on, more popular and arguably better for having such a fantastic athlete, but essentially the same game.
Which brings me to Twitter. Twitter is a little bit like Tiger. It burst onto the scene at SXSW in 2007 and for a while, it was all people could talk about. It faded somewhat and people talked about Facebook or something else for a while, and then around the election last year, Twitter “tipped” and now it’s really become ubiquitous, particularly amongst the media. Companies are wondering what “twitter strategy” they should have. Conferences are being organized about how to best “expose your brand in 140 characters”. People have talked about Twitter threatening Google or Microsoft.
I think Twitter, like Tiger, is for real. I’m active on it and I get a lot of value from it. I think its position as “social radio”, where I can tune in either to contemporaneous thoughts from a group of people I find interesting, or to a particular topic, is powerful. Twitter is a winner.
But that being said, I think we’re essentially doing what people did in 1997 with Tiger. People look at Twitter, extrapolate its buzz and growth into the future, and conclude that our lives will never be the same. I can’t tell you how many people in the last 90 days I’ve heard propose a twitter-centric solution to a problem. To contextualize where I think we are right now, I’d go back a couple of years to the months following the launch of Facebook Platform.
Facebook launched applications to great fanfare. The following week I was at a conference where a successful entrepreneur told the crowd, “If I were starting a company today, I’d build for Facebook first, the web second”. People were racing to see who could say, “Facebook is the social operating system of the web” first. People saw the buzz, the instant engagement, and simply pulled the trend forward ten years into a world where operating systems were gone and we all just booted straight into Facebook and led our online lives in Facebook applications. So far, it hasn’t turned out that way.
As a VC, part of what I try to do is see the world as it will be some day. It’s a tough task, and I think anyone that claims to get it right most of the time isn’t being honest. I don’t know if, in the future, Twitter will replace email, social networks and online advertising. I think it probably doesn’t, but I think it has an important role to play in communications going forward. But generally speaking, I think that if we want to forecast the future as best we can, assuming that what’s hot right now inevitably emerges into a paradigm-shifting change in all of our lives is not the best approach.