A Twitter Novice on Why Twitter Matters

by Krishna on April 5, 2009

I created a login on Twitter user two years ago, but I would still classify myself as a novice user. I blame Twitter for this because the folks at Twitter themselves seem to have no clue what the point of Twitter is. Almost every sentence in the Twitter homepage is an advertisement for not using Twitter.

Here is the text from Twitter’s “What? Why? and How?

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

Why? Because even basic updates are meaningful to family members, friends, or colleagues—especially when they’re timely.

  • Eating soup? Research shows that moms want to know.
  • Running late to a meeting? Your co–workers might find that useful.
  • Partying? Your friends may want to join you.

With Twitter, you can stay hyper–connected to your friends and always know what they’re doing. Or, you can stop following them any time. You can even set quiet times on Twitter so you’re not interrupted.

Twitter puts you in control and becomes a modern antidote to information overload.

This raises more questions than it answers:

  1. Shouldn’t I be emailing “timely” information to (or calling) family members, friends and colleagues? Especially if they have the ability to stop following me at any time and decide not to be interrupted.
  2. What are the things that I don’t want my mom to know, even if she wants to know? Same for co-workers and friends? Does this one-size-fits-all really work?
  3. How can Twitter be an “antidote” to information overload when I follow hundreds or thousands of my “friends”?
  4. What if some of my friends aren’t on Twitter? Consider that among online users, Facebook has more than 10 times the number of Twitter users.

The standard way of using Twitter makes little sense if you are not a celebrity with a significant number of fans. If you are somebody who is famous in the real or virtual world, there will be many people who follow you and your happenings and eagerly respond to you. The number of responses to anything you say or write is directly proportional to how easy it is to respond to you. And Twitter makes that very easy.

You are not allowed to write more than 140 characters, thus avoiding the need for people to consider your message in any length when responding to you. In any case, they are also restricted in what they can write, so there is hardly any need for deep thought. Quite a change from having to write blog posts where words are free and you would have to defend yourself from not considered a particular viewpoint.

But if you are not a celebrity, using Twitter is like shouting in a desert. Hardly anyone responds to you. So forget about being hyper-connected and effective communication. All you are doing is maintaining a small diary of your life and thoughts. It is not that different from a blog except that Twitter makes it easier in some ways, but you also have to deal with the fact that Twitter doesn’t allow you to say very much, if you wanted to. Micro-blogging seems more restrictive and straitjacketed. You cannot even post links without them being TinyURL-ized. And you have to use 3rd party services for images and videos. Is it worth the hassle?

Following friends is better, but, like I said before, if many of your real-life friends are not using Twitter (or using it infrequently), you don’t gain much benefit. In fact, Facebook and LinkedIn are better candidates for Twitter-like functionality, because your friends are already there. The context of your messages (social or formal) are clearer and people are more active there, allowing for a better “conversation”.

You could use Twitter for following noteworthy people and companies. This seems to be the most popular behavior on Twitter: you can follow your favorite actors, singers, artists, politicians, etc. Following celebrities may seem vacuous and juvenile, but many of the top Twitter users are respected leaders in their field and it is useful to follow their happenings. You can also decide to follow people whom you find interesting, even though they may not be very popular otherwise.

This provides an opportunity for you to widen your social network from your real-life friends to adding new virtual friends. So instead of talking about yourself and using Twitter as a one-way broadcast service, you use it to discuss events with others. Theoretically, the more active you are on Twitter, the more acquaintances you could make and influence behavior.

Unfortunately, a problem is that Twitter use doesn’t scale well beyond a point. There is a threshold of users whom you can follow beyond which you are simply overloaded with information (so much for “putting you in control”). This threshold may be different for different people, higher if you are a journalist or higher if you are using a tool like TweetDeck, but you will hit it at some point because as a human being, you can only process and respond to so much information.

The natural tendency of human beings when confronted with information overload is to start ignoring stuff. For example, you don’t read every page of the newspaper or click every link on your favorite news website, do you? Although several pieces of information you ignore may be useful, interesting or important to you, you don’t care if you missed them. In the same way, beyond a point, you cannot keep up with the flowing bits of the Twitter river.

One strategy is to never get to that stage. Limit the bits by only following a limited number of people that you can keep up with (or group selected people from the bigger list). Many people do that, but what happens is that you get groups of people following and talking to each other and oblivious to other conversations. This is a strange phenomenon: The discussion is happening in public and you can follow every part of the conversation, but it is still a conversation among a private group. It is very much like watching a debate on TV. You are privy to everything, but you have no influence.

In terms of marketing, this leads to the situation that if you are not part of the select group of individuals that a person “really” listens to, you have no influence over their behavior. There are a lot of marketers trying to harness followers on the assumption that they can broadcast to them. This is a fallacy as they can be easily ignored. And there are too many people fighting for the top Twitter spots that could provide sufficient publicity to be accepted into a person’s sphere of influence.

Ultimately, from an individual perspective, what Twitter boils down to seems to be following a bunch of people, responding to some of them and ignoring the rest. It doesn’t seem very special and probably something that you already do on other social networks in different ways.

So why in the world do you need Twitter? The answer is that Twitter makes little sense at the individual level, but it has a huge impact when aggregating information at the level of thousands and millions of users.

Think about this. Each Tweet by a Twitter user contains very little information. It may be interesting, more likely not. But if that information is echoed by several thousand users, its meaning completely changes. For example, if Ashton Kutcher has a cold, that may not interest you. If 1000 Twitter users from Waltham, Massachusetts Tweet about having a cold, that probably means that there is a flu going around and you have to start taking precautions. If Mary Somebody is complaining about poor ad revenues this month, you may not particularly care. If several thousand people express the same concern, you may want to take a second look at that media stock portfolio.

To change your thinking about Twitter, you have to stop thinking “who” and start thinking “what”. Twitter is not about following people or having them follow you. It is about following events and understanding trends. Each individual Tweet has little value on its own, but when aggregated can provide powerful information. What are people thinking about? Reading? Watching? Buying? Dreaming of buying? Dreading? Irritated about?

Twitter is the ultimate instant news channel with people Twittering directly from the location of the event. Of course, Twitter has not achieved its potential yet, but imagine a scenario where everyone is Twittering with geo-coding and you can filter the news from people who are right there, instead of the chatter from second-hand reporters. This could be about a natural disaster, a mass shooting or rush-hour traffic.

I talk about Twitter’s potential because not only is everyone not on Twitter, but arguably we don’t yet have the tools to use Twitter effectively. Twitter allows us to follow search keywords, but it is not very intelligent about search. For example, I may be very interested in cricket events, but I don’t have a reliable way to filter Tweets based on the type of cricket or order the information based on the user’s authority on the topic of cricket. As Twitter continues to gain popularity, we will see more powerful tools, so these issues will be temporary.

Twitter’s revenue stream may, in fact, come from better data mining tools that can make sense of the enormous flood of data and decipher trends that they can sell to marketers. For example, they may find that mentions for Cereal A is far greater than Cereal B in winter or in the Mid-West, reasons for which may be found by digging further in the individual Tweets.

A final question would be: Why should Twitter be better in this respect than Facebook or LinkedIn? I think this goes back to my original thesis: Regardless of its intentions, Twitter is very bad as a social network for the individual, while both Facebook and LinkedIn shine in this area. People wanting to have a conversation or interact with their friends and business contacts will use the latter. But people wanting to report something will use Twitter. The all-purpose nature of Twitter puts no restriction on what a person may want to say.

And in the end, that’s why Twitter matters. Because it generates meaning by aggregating all those people shouting in the desert.

{ 2 comments }

Anonymous April 6, 2009 at 11:45 am

More on Twitter thoughts clustering can be found here :

http://lifeanalytics.blogspot.com/2009/01/clustering-thoughts-of-twitter-users.html

Krish April 6, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Thanks for the link

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