After 19 years, 4 championship rings, and countless pairs of size 23 shoes, Shaquille O’Neal has announced his retirement from the NBA. Normally I wouldn’t be the guy to write this column - I leave these matters to people who actually know sports - except that Shaq’s case is different; Shaq announced his retirement over Twitter.
Shortly after the announcement - a 15 second video clip in which a cheery Shaquille said “I’m about to retire. Love you.” - the tech blogosphere lit up, thrilled that such a mainstream event had been announced over the web. Some said it “proves the power of Twitter.” But how? Perhaps the only thing bigger than Shaquille O’Neal’s physical form is his online presence. He has nearly 4 million followers on Twitter and 2 million Facebook fans. His real world celebrity status still exists on the internet - what is so powerful about that?
Some would say the power of Twitter is that it allows people to engage larger-than-life personalities on an intimate level. I can think of few things less intimate than a person sending a 140-character message to 4 million people, all at the same time. Let’s also consider the number of people Shaq follows in return: 638. Is that intimacy? No, not really.
And what of the fact that Shaq only used Twitter to get the message out. The message was actually recorded using another service, Tout, for which Shaq sits on the advisory board. Tout is basically the Twitter version of YouTube, allowing users to upload 15-second clips for all the web to see. The company claims that O’Neal has no financial stake in the company, which I find extremely hard to believe, especially when the story goes as follows:
Tout quietly launches in beta six weeks ago. Two weeks later, Shaq’s people get in touch and say he wants to make a big announcement. The company scrambles to make sure it can handle the massive traffic jump it’s about to receive. Shaq agrees to sit on the advisory board.
Am I supposed to believe he took that position for fun? That YouTube couldn’t handle his desire to upload consecutive 15-second video clips of himself, his tailor, and his sextape-famous girlfriend? I hope not. The whole thing reeks of endorsement, and frankly, it’s working. I’m sitting here writing about it. So far, this seems to be where the real “power” of Twitter lies: in leveraging celebrity for brand exposure, but it remains unseen how well that’s even working.
It strikes me as less than coincidental that Twitter’s CEO, Dick Costolo, appeared at the D9 conference on the day of Shaq’s big announcement to give a 45-minute interview about the relevance of Twitter and the power of its advertising. Of the few numbers he offered about engagement rates and ad renewals, the one I really found interesting was that some 600,000 developers are currently working with the Twitter API. That’s a whole lot of developers for a service that has yet to tangibly prove its value, a whole lot of people trying to find Twitter’s elusive power. I’m on Twitter nearly every day (@jeffplaysgames) and I have yet to be convinced. It’s a decent distraction, but I can’t see it as much else.