Twitter and the Trough of Disillusionment

By Tim Cigelske

Brilliant higher education consultant Brad J. Ward recently posted a blog asking “has Twitter hit a ceiling in higher ed?”

Brad Ward

Brad, who I met through Twitter two years ago, seems burned out on the network for a number of reasons, which include looking for more depth than 140 characters, wanting to think independently of the crowd, and his prediction that Twitter is nearing the end of its growth cycle.

“I used to be excited about the possibilities of this tool,” he writes. “But as of late, it’s probably apparent that I’ve dramatically changed my thoughts on it.”

It’s not just Brad and higher education, either. Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article and this new study are all symptoms of the Twitter backlash. Turns out Twitter may not cure cancer, feed the hungry and usher in an era of world peace all overnight.

For Brad and many others, Twitter has reached a critical moment in its evolution called (wait for it)… the Trough of Disillusionment!

Aside from being one of the coolest terms ever, the Trough of Disillusionment is a necessary step in the Gartner Hype Cycle (above).

As you can see from the chart, anything that lasts long enough to grow from niche fan base to mainstream success — like Death Cab for Cutie or bacon — must go through this often painful phase.

There are a lot of pluses to hanging out in the playground of early adopters at the beginning of the curve. It’s easier to make connections and see results in a smaller pool, it’s fun and exciting to harness a new technology, and you can set yourself up as a leader in your industry just by having the first mover advantage.

But to be have a large-scale impact, you have to scale. The network effect refers to tools that become more useful the more people who have them — like fax machines and phones — and social networks like Twitter certainly fall within this category. Momentum fuels growth fuels greater applications.

With early successes and potential comes word of mouth, intense media coverage and all the promises associated with the Next Big Thing. The message has spread to a wider audience. Welcome to the Peak of Inflated Expectations.

But there are always growing pains like network congestion*cough* fail whale *cough* – associated with the network effect.

If a technology can survive The Trough of Disillusionment — also called The Dip by Seth Godin — it emerges as a more stable, useful and widely applied tool.  Perhaps most importantly, expectations on all sides are re-aligned and the tool is integrated within a larger strategy. The tool gets used not simply because it’s new and shiny, but because it’s capable of helping accomplish your end goal.

So to answer Brad’s original question, I see no sign of a Twitter ceiling, but I do see a trough. And I think that’s a healthy thing.

Where are you on the curve?

– Tim Cigelske is a Communication Specialist at Marquette University, which recently surpassed 20,000 fans and followers between their general Twitter and Facebook pages.