8 November 2010
"Eternal September" was first coined in 1993, to describe millions of AOL internet users that came online, disrupting Usenet's previously small, intimate community.
It's now a term used to describe any ongoing influx of newbies who discover a service, and overwhelm it, often ignoring its conventions and etiquette and changing it beyond recognition. Which is understandably resented by original users and early adopters.
The upside to Eternal September is that it spurs innovation, in several ways. The first is that some of that rush of new members will find different and original ways to use a technology. Secondly, the sheer weight of numbers also makes new services economically viable. Developers aren't inclined to put a lot of resources into a platform with only a few hundred users. Expand that to hundreds of thousands of users, and it quickly becomes worthwhile for them to write and sell apps.
Take Twitter. In 2007 there were around 100,000 tweets a month. By March 2008 there were 90 million tweets a month. By January 2010, this hit one billion tweets a month. As of November 2010, there are well over two billion. It's hard to even draw a graph to show that kind of exponential growth - twenty thousand times in just three years.
Just coping with that sheer weight of increase obviously changed the way people used Twitter, not to mention the spammers and fraudsters surfing in on the same tidal wave. Originally, Twitter was a "microblogging" service: a mini-version of a LiveJournal or Blogger/Blogspot (where Twitter's founders came from).
Wikipedia tells us: "While sitting in a park on a children's slide and eating Mexican food, Jack Dorsey introduced the idea of an individual using an SMS service to communicate with a small group."
And back in 2007, Hitwise described it: "For those of you not familiar with Twitter, it is a self described "global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing?" Members are able to update their profile and answer the question through text messages, IM or online. It is a fantastically easy way to upload content to the web."
But SMS was soon no longer viable with such a huge amount of tweets: people simply couldn't afford to send and receive thousands of messages a month. As a result, a range of smartphone apps sprung up, such as Tweetie and Twinkle and Twitterific, so people could access the stream of tweets directly via the internet. As did a vast host of related Twitter services: Twitpic, Twitterfall, TwitArt, Tweetdom.
Twitter also became more about real-time communication, not about a personal miniblog. It became ephemeral and forgettable, rather than a permanent, haiku-style diary or journal. It was no longer about uploading content as one does to a blog or tumblelog, to be easily and permanently available on an internet site. Rather it's about quickly sharing a photo, that some people may see, and those that miss will likely never see. Older tweets aren't aggregated or saved or organised as forum or bulletin board comments are. They're sent, and they're gone. There is no organisation. There is no real discussion, where one can easily refer back to earlier comments. There is just an endless stream of conversation.
To new users, who never knew anything else, there was no problem with this. To many existing users this change may have been welcome. There was more to read, more to see, more people to communicate with. But for others, Eternal September had arrived, and with it a migration to other services.
And this leads us to the Eternal September's other driver of innovation: defecting early adopters. Some of these move back to the bulletin boards and forums. Others migrate to new start ups, with smaller and more intimate membership. They may go to social news sites such as Digg and Reddit, which combine the Twitter-like stream of news and feature links with longer conversations and discussions.
Or they create entirely new services. These may stay small, they may fizzle out, or they may become the next big thing. Gapnote, Gowalla, Gbanga, GetGlue. But those that survive and thrive will one day too reach their Eternal September. For the web is as fickle as it is fast-growing.
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