The Riddle of Twitter

Tweet!It’s a blog! No, it’s a microblog! No, wait, it’s a cocktail party! No, it’s something for you to be witty or interesting on so you gain followers! Wait, no, it’s the light infantry! But not for conferences! And not for mundane crap!

What I find baffling is that people seem to be hell bent on defining what Twitter is (or, for that mater, is not). Unlike most other social media (Facebook, Myspace, Friendster, Livejournal, Blogger, etc), Twitter comes with the shortest instruction manual and it is phrased in the form of a question: “What are you doing?” The deviously simple interface is a portal into an ongoing real time conversation of your own choosing as you opt in to follow people based on your own taste and criteria. (And, likewise, opt out or unfollow someone when they fall outside of your interest.)

For me, the conversation about Twitter closely resembles the tale of the blind men and the elephant. People are so determined to pin down what Twitter is and is not that they are missing the overall point: that Twitter is everything that people describe it to be. Want to share what you had for breakfast? Go for it. Want to keep tabs on a couple of friends? You got it. Professional networking? It’s there, just do it. Build up an online presence cult of personality? Tweet away, oh future internet trend despot. It is the Web 2.0 Mirror of Erised, a magical looking glass upon which a person can gaze at what they wish to see and input their say in their Twitter feed. How can it possibly be any simpler? While it might not be for everyone, with the proper external tools and some internet elbow grease, it can satisfy the most picky user’s expectations.

For myself, I find that Twitter is the right balance of personal and professional. I can share my joys, woes, observations, and thoughts to a select (reasonably interested) crowd. More importantly for me, it has become a valuable source of professional articles that offer tips and insights that I am certain I would not have found otherwise. My network of library professionals has expanded beyond my library system and granted me access to (what I can only think to call) a people database. These carefully cultivated contacts now exist on the local, national, and international level and put a spectrum of knowledge and expertise a mere tweet away. For me, that kind of raw information potential is captivating and powerful; and it makes me extraordinarily grateful to be in such a supportive profession. That is how Twitter has met and exceeded my expectations and why I continue to happily tweet today.

Personally, I have a very unscientific and suitably unsupported theory about the low retention rates. I base this solely on my unwritten observations of Twitter, people in general, and related postings. I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts that the so called “retention problems” lay with the end user because they come to the service with unreasonable expectations. Whether it is the idea that a Twitter account will somehow magically grant them access to celebrities or consistently give them a specific type of information they are looking for or be the social happening place that it is at any given moment (your mileage with followers may vary), they are let down when the reality doesn’t match the hype. Sure, it looked good on Oprah, but beyond Oprah’s sparse tweets (51 in total, none towards any non-celebrity of her 1.6 million followers), what is there for these new members to do? They have been dropped off at the proverbial Promised Land without a guide or an incentive to stay. Even if they did not ride the mighty coattails of Oprah to the service, they could find the “noise” of uninteresting updates from those they follow to be a deal breaker for the service. Whether it is for personal contacts or professional information, the sheer volume of information that passes through their page feels insurmountable. They flail, they flounder, and then they flee. And it is when Twitter fails to meet a person’s presumed expectations of the service that they toss it aside like a stuffed animal that has fallen out of favor with an angry child.

[Darker consideration: My much (worse) theory is that people approach it like television; specifically, I mean that they look to the service to conform to their whims without any effort on their part. They fall into the trap of being too lazy and treat the service as something that should acquiesce to their preferences right out of the proverbial box. Rather than engage the service, they curse it for not being what they want from the moment they log in. The passiveness of other social media (like the gentle cascade of a Facebook feed page) is a complete juxtaposition to the active nature of Twitter.]

There has been much press about Twitter’s retention numbers and active accounts. I find the numbers being waved around to be rather uncompelling because they simply do not go far enough in their analysis. It does not account for lurkers (people who sign up for accounts simply to be able to read a list of who they follow), those who use it for marketing & research (read: data mining) purposes, and the spammers who constantly on the move within the service creating accounts (nevermind what counts as an ‘active’ account or the fact that you can be active on an account without followers). Find me in a year or two and then I’ll take a look at the charts again. Perhaps it is our ever increasingly small technology cycles, but I don’t believe that all businesses on the internet need to follow the explosive growth of Google, Amazon, or Facebook to prove long term success. More people are coming online, more people are embracing social media to maintain their relationships for different aspects of their lives, and the world is becoming more socially connected. Even if it’s only 10% of the people generating 90% of the content, that’s still a fair number of people generating a massive amounts of information. On Twitter, that is roughly 450,000 people based on the estimated 4.5 million accounts; it would be equivalent to the population of Luxembourg. (Or, for a much larger number to think about, 10% of active Facebook users would be approximately 20 million people worldwide. For comparison, that is just a little shy of the population of Australia).

And it’s only going to get bigger. You can bet the cocktail party on that.



...but I never know what to post (no mundane crap?)

I think mundane crap is pretty arbitrary. In the infamous case of tweeting your breakfast choices, I think some might find it mundane, some might find it trite, and some might actually find it interesting and get a cooking idea out of it. It's all relative, really, which is an important aspect of Twitter.

in the USAToday link... under Do/Don't

On one hand, Twitter's retention rate is actually fairly high, compared to some other web phenomena (cough 2nd life cough 5% or less, cough blogs active after two months or so cough 10% or less).

On the other hand, you lose me entirely with this:

I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts that the so called “retention problems” lay with the end user because they come to the service with unreasonable expectations.

Here's an alternative: Twitter isn't right for everybody, and some of us recognize that after trying it out for a while.

I guess the retention rate looks good or bad depending on the measuring stick you are using. Compared to Second Life and blogging, yeah it looks stellar; compared to Facebook and Myspace, not so much.

I don't see unreasonable expectations and the notion "Twitter isn't right for everybody" as being mutually exclusive concepts. The former can lead to the latter and it is my personal belief that that is how it ends up for most users who drop the service. That's just my personal hunch as indicated by the lack of collaborating information and links; it's my potshot at why people leave Twitter.

But you are right, not all social media is right for everyone. I can easily imagine people who openly loathe Facebook. However, I am baffled by those who would seek to define it as being X and not Y when the system has the flexibility to be both X and Y.

I'm increasingly finding that any variation of "You just don't get it" is a sore point, along with "inevitable" and universalism. (Worse, by far, "if you don't like it, it means you haven't used it enough"--an argument you didn't made, and one that really gets me going. As with YJDGI and "it's inevitable," it succeeds at ending debate but not at adding light to the situation.)

You're certainly right that Twitter, like blogging, like FriendFeed, can be many different animals. (And since I'm not fond of The Rules being defined for amorphous new tools...)

Then there's "microblogging." To me, it's a silly term, like calling a postcard a "micronovel," but I know I'm not going to win that one, so...

I'm sorry if I came off as "You just don't get it", but I can see where I hit all those sore points. Perhaps I should have emphasized more of the "It's everything to everyone!" aspect that I believe in than the semi- disparaging "You're not doing it right" sort of argument. I really wanted to avoid the "One size fits all" mentality since I think that's more insulting.

Because I love visual language, I would liken social media to water. It takes the shape of the container it's in without changing its properties. You can be refreshed by it, but too much can drown you. And on a long enough time scale, it can erode away anything.

The only thing I think is inevitable is that the social media in the future will be bigger, better, and more in sync with our lives. That and death & taxes.

twitter for now is all things to all people. just a step up in the hive mind.