20 January 2009

Untweetable: Why Twitter Fever Isn’t For Everyone

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder & Fusion Director, Atomic Tango LLC

It was all about that sharpener...

It was all about that sharpener...

When I was a kid, the object of all crayon lust was the Crayola 64 box with the built-in sharpener, because a dull crayon was almost as bad as soggy Cocoa Pebbles. And yet, that Crayola 64 contained some bizarre colors like Maize, Burnt Sienna and the fun-to-say-but-rarely-used Raw Umber.* While Black was quickly worn to a stub — one could never have enough Black — Maize lasted longer than the Shredded Wheat that mom tried to get us to eat in place of Cocoa Pebbles. (Sorry, mom, miniature bales of hay are for miniature horses.)

The point of this contrived metaphor? Just because a color exists doesn’t mean you have to use it. The same holds true for new media like Twitter…

First, let’s do a quick tour of late-great Internet NBT’s (Next Big Things):

Chatrooms: Back in ’95, when I was working on the MCA Records website, chatrooms were touted as the NBT. “Your site must have a chatroom,” said the prophets, “because it enables consumers to talk about you in a branded environment.” I recall checking out a major-beer-brand chatroom and finding exactly one other guy in it. That conversation was shorter than the time it took to download the site. Other chatrooms were popular for a while — until they started being haunted by 13-year-old boys exercising their new found freedom to curse anonymously at adults, and creepy old men looking anonymously for 13-year-old boys. Most chatrooms faded away, replaced by old-school bulletin boards that were more easily moderated, and that didn’t require having all the users in the same place at the same time.

Push: A couple of years later, I’m working on the Toyota website. And the prophets did proclaim that websites were out, and that the NBT was push technology. Instead of trying to get consumers to come to your site, you would push your infinitely fascinating info to them using small modules on their computer desktops (the precursor to today’s widgets). So we started thinking about what the hell we could push to Toyota fans around the clock that would compel them to give us a corner of their desktops. Before we could think of anything, push was declared over. Apparently, hackers and viruses were very interested in having open connections to consumer computers. Next!

Virtual Worlds: More recently, the NBT was virtual worlds like Second Life, where everyone could create avatars and wander fantasy landscapes, freed from the confines of our corporeal beings. Millions of people tried it out, including corporations who spent millions of dollars building showcases that no one saw. When people discovered that virtual worlds were just sparsely-populated chatrooms on acid, most dropped out and the worlds became ghost towns. (I recently wrote about one such failure called SportsBLOX.) Only a few virtual world diehards have stuck around, counting down the days until virtual sex provides an actual tactile sensation.

Podcasts: Then came downloadable audio series — aka podcasts — which make absolute sense for established media brands targeting iPod owners. However, very few startups or non-media brands have attained any success through this medium, which is not search-engine friendly (like blogs) or potentially viral (like YouTube videos). That didn’t stop one over-excited ad agency from annoying all of its clients by pushing podcasts on them — whether appropriate or not — before confessing to “podcast fatigue” and dropping their own podcast!

And now there’s Twitter.

The Network Effect Gives A Tweet

The term “network effect” applies to systems whose value corresponds to their total number of users. For example, your fax machine is worthless if no one else has one. Most chatrooms and virtual worlds have died because of the network effect: not enough people used them to get them to critical mass. Compare that to Facebook, which has over 150 million users. Thanks to the network effect, the value of having a Facebook page is now much higher than having one on its rival Friendster, which has dwindled into a Silicon Valley punchline.

Today the Next Big Thing is Twitter. And right now, the Network Effect appears to be in its favor, with over 30 million users. In addition, retailers such as Zappos, Dell and Woot are making sales on it.

If you’re not familiar with Twitter, it’s yet another social networking service. (Apparently, as Detroit crumbled, our brightest technologists and venture capitalists were devoted to helping us make friends.) Imagine a site where millions of people do nothing but send each other telegraphic messages no longer than 140 characters each — like Facebook with nothing but status updates.

I have several truly brilliant friends and business associates who swear by Twitter. Indeed, they’re addicted, and I don’t question their claims that they derive value from the service. And I can definitely see the allure of Twitter if you’re a fan of a particular brand, group or person, and you want their up-to-the-second announcements and special offers. In particular, I think the service is ideally structured for investment advisors who have many clients: sell now! No, buy! No, sell! No, arrrrrgh!

So I tried Twitter out a few months ago… and left after two weeks. The big turnoff?

Many of the Twitter users I followed had little of value to say. (Note: if you were one of my Twitter friends, of course I’m not talking about you. You were relentlessly witty, brilliant and infinitely worth listening to. I voraciously loved your tweets!) I’m referring to some famous people, businesses and myself. Absolutely myself. Although I’m verbose and opinionated by nature, I was a complete Twitter bore. I just couldn’t figure out what warranted saying every few minutes in under 140 characters. I put the Twit in Twitter.

And yet, I felt this ever-present nagging poke in the virtual ribs to post more tweets (as Twitter messages are called). If you anguish over what clever bon mot you can post in your Facebook status, imagine that angst recurring every few hours. Sorry, not even Dorothy Parker could have maintained a steady stream of 140-character witticisms, at least while sober. So I was alternately refraining from tweeting and then spewing much ado about nothing. In return for my angst, I received tweets from people telling me that they were off to the store to buy milk.

Millions of dollars in technology in order to read other people’s to-do lists.

There was also this ever-present nagging poke in the virtual ribs to recruit followers of my own. I felt like I was at future-televangelist camp in a flock forming exercise. (Herd, Freddy, herd!) At first I celebrated when some random strangers signed up to follow my tweets. But after a while I got creeped out, since I hadn’t said anything particularly profound to warrant their devotion. So I tweeted, “Why would anyone bother to follow a complete stranger on Twitter?” and immediately lost two of my flock. I would suck as a televangelist. (Apparently, the secret to success on Twitter is to be a cat. Hmmm, maybe it’s time I make my sidekick Scooter earn his keep…)

And all the time that I was Twittering, I was neglecting two communications platforms that were working for me: Facebook and this blog. There was also this thing called “work.” Instead of pitching ideas to clients, writing scripts for The Worldwide Scoop, finishing my book, or sharing my infinite wisdom with my students, I was creating tweets — valueless tweets that would disappear uselessly into unsearchable cyberspace. (A search engine for Twitter and other messaging sites has since been developed, and my first question is, why?)

With a blog, I can rant at my heart’s content — no character limits here. (This article alone would have required over 70 disjointed tweets.) This post will reside here for the world to seek and find forever, or at least until either I or WordPress implodes. Because of the long-tail effect, articles I wrote over a year ago are still drawing traffic, and since these are fully-fledged paragraphs and narratives, they score business for me. I can’t imagine anyone offering me a gig based on tweets, unless it’s for writing fortune cookies.

My buddy Doug suggested that I use Twitter to promote my blog. I tried. But after some experimentation, posting links on Facebook proved significantly more effective.

So maybe someday when I’ve honed my soundless-soundbite skills, I’ll return to Twitter. Until then, my activities on Facebook, WordPress, LinkedIn, Creative Hotlist, MySpace, Digg, YouTube, StumbleUpon, Craigslist, two alumni newsletters, a friend’s Steelers blog, some random Ning groups, and my phone should cover my needs. Anyone got time for sale?

What about you? Should you tweet? Well, try answering these questions first…

  • Do you have something worth saying? Your friends and family love you, but only your stalkers care to know where you are every minute of the day.
  • Do you have the time? It’s just 140 characters per tweet, but that takes more time than you’d ever imagine. In addition, in the spirit of Twitter, you should be following others — sometimes in a quid pro quo (“join my flock and I’ll join yours”) — all day long. If you’re also updating your Facebook page, writing blogs, and moderating your YouTube video comments for porn-spam, you’ll soon wonder where your life and your wife/husband/sig-other have gone. It will make you long for the days when people used the US Postal System when they had something to say. True, if you run a business, you can hire someone to tweet for you; but if you’re an individual, you can’t — it’s not only phony as hell, but for all the returns you’ll get, you might as well invest in Bernie Madoff. (Update 3/26/9: Ghost Twittering is actually taking place. Apparently, even Silicon Valley hotshots like Guy Kawasaki think Twitter is so important, they have people to do it for them.)
That it blows hard!

Thar it blows hard!

  • Will Twitter last? Wouldn’t you hate to build a killer flock only to have the entire pasture collapse from lack of support? As Twitter users know, the site’s servers are often overtaxed, resulting in the infamous Fail Whale appearing on their screens. Those servers must cost a mint to run, but the company only just recently hired a revenue officer — up to this point, Twitter’s been fee-free and ad-free. (Gotta love webonomics.) Now Twitter is reportedly seeking advertisers in the worst advertising market in decades. Other Web 2.0 ventures like YouTube and Facebook appear sustainable, yet despite their hundreds of millions of users, they’re not the gushing cash cows that their valuators estimated they would be. How will Twitter and its relatively minuscule 30 million users compete for the attention of advertisers — particularly since many would-be advertisers are already exploiting the service for free?
  • Would another service suit you better? If you have a lot to say — or are an exceptional writer — then blog. If you’re a filmmaker, focus on YouTube and FunnyorDie.com. If you’re looking for a job or an employee, exploit LinkedIn (and CreativeHotlist.com for writers and designers). And if you want to just communicate with your colleagues, why, there’s now a whole new short-message website just for internal business communications called Yammer. Yes, that’s right, it’s a Twitter clone/wannabe — the first of many to come, I hear. I just read about it in an article that was cited by a blog that was mentioned in an e-newsletter from one of my alumni groups.

(Insert scream here.)

Kind of makes you want to trade in your computer for a Crayola 64 box and some quality time with your kids, huh? At the least, you’d wind up with something cool to post on your fridge…

……..

*Amusing Crayola Factoids: The Crayola 64 box celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008, and 8 colors — including Raw Umber and Maize — were retired. This inspired some preservationists to form RUMPS: The Raw Umber and Maize Preservation Society. You know your brand has become a cult classic when adults take the time to form a group to protest your color changes.

Update 1/23/9: David Pogue of the NY Times writes about the pros and cons of Twitter: “Twittering Tips for Beginners”

Update 6/6/9: Reportedly, the hot new meme on Twitter is robot pickup lines. Yeah. That should get me scurrying back to renew my membership. More significantly, TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld reports that 80% of Twitter users have 10 or fewer followers. Schonfeld calls these lackluster Twitterers “sheep” — nice to see that my flock metaphor was relevant. He also notes that 10% of users produce 90% of tweets (a rough approximation of the Pareto Principle), and that somewhere between 40-60% of users have either not tweeted or simply dropped off. Sorry, that’s pretty lame for supposedly the hottest phenomenon in communications. Imagine if 40-60% of cell phone users never made a call or canceled their service. Maybe this will convince TechCrunch not to devote umpteen articles every single week to Twitter.

Here’s a scathingly funny cartoon interpretation of Twitter:

Related Article: Friend Me: 5 Rules for Advertising on Facebook

Shameless Plug: For strategic consultation on which social media are right for your business, contact Atomic Tango

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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