I’ve been engaged with social media since forever. Always found it fascinating, even exciting. I really like Twitter. Now Quora seems interesting, but in a semi-social-media sort of way. There’s a bit of a shift happening. A lot of “early adopters” have been doing the Quora thing for a while and now it’s on the upswing of that familiar knee function of exponential growth.

Meanwhile, Twitter seems a little less vibrant. Is it because all the cool kids are playing with Quora? Partially. After all anyone with a real job only has so much time to dicker with this stuff, unless you’re a rare beast: a Professional Social Media Guru that’s a real job. So maybe Twitter is a little less shimmering with excitement because really interesting people are spending less time on it.

But that isn’t all. That only explains part of it.

I think the dampening of Twitter is something that’s been repeated many times with other trends – most notably blogging – and the common factor is audience. I think audience kills.

Along with a few million people, I signed on to Twitter about two years ago (call me a just-past-the-bleeding-edge adopter). What was compelling about it was the community. Chances you were going to find someone interesting, or even be followed by someone interesting were pretty high. That’s exciting.

Then it became a mass phenomenon. People stopped talking to their community of followers and stated talking to their Audience. Many people stripped character from their tweets, so they didn’t run a risk of offending their Audience. Characterless marketing opportunity opportunists joined in droves. Now I get endless series of follows who have triggered off some word I’ve used. Say the dreaded “Search Engine Optimization”, expect to get followed by 35 so-called experts, half of whom promote the same methods I labelled as absolute garbage in the tweet that triggered the follow! No dialogue, no engagement, not even an argument. Just follow on keyword. These aren’t people, they’re applications. It’s not a conversation, it’s not anything.

The result is low grade ore. Generic, bland grey goo. Repetitions of repetitions of the mildly informative, rehashed. It’s not spam, it’s not interesting. It’s a fire hose of information with few gems. The vibrancy is increasingly hard to find.

This decay is all down to Audience. Many blogs were great – when almost nobody read them. Now they write to their Audience, mostly with corresponding non-offensive blandness. Twitter offers diminishing returns, thanks to Audience. Facebook continues to survive, but only if you “friend” people you stand a chance of recognizing in a police lineup, which severely limits scope. LinkedIn has gone from a way to connect to people with specific skills or knowledge to ways to connect to people with a mail address. Now there’s value.

I see MetaFilter is charging a nominal amount ($5.00) to create an account, mostly to keep the spam out. Maybe this is the kernel of a good idea. Maybe the cost of joining a community should increase as the membership grows. Maybe someone will develop an automated value ranking system that makes connecting to a site a low cost proposition for high value individuals, and vice versa. I’d sign up for that. Screw the audience.