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.

20 Responses

  1. Some thoughts/questions.

    What about Aggregation of mass thought?

    Doesn’t data mining “Tweets” have any value? Especially to companies trying to deliver the next product? How about the tweets that came out of the plane that just crashed into the Hudson, letting everyone know that everyone was ok, HOURS before CNN?

    There’s gotta be some value in micro blogging. All of which hasn’t yet been exploited.

    I use Trendr to data mine all kinds of info… and it’s very very informative, in my humble opinion.

    I know this doesn’t explain the value of HAVING a twitter… but some value of Twitter’s existence, maybe.

  2. THANK YOU! As a member of the tech community, I worry about being dismissed because of my ambivalence about Twitter.

    But guess what? I’m not the person you find hanging out next to the water cooler all day long. I’m also not the person who opens her mouth unless she has something valuable to say. And I’m not the person who’s comfortable with people I’ve never met knowing what I did with my day (or–gulp–finding patterns of behavior).

    Granted, permissions can be managed. But until the majority of my real-life friends are on Twitter, it just doesn’t add value. At this point, Facebook and LinkedIn are far better for my needs.

  3. I find the paragraph about ‘Will Twitter Last’ very astute – particularly your point about potential advertisers exploiting it for free. Simple but very good point.

  4. Twitter is an odd phenomenon to me as well. i’m still trying to figure it out. i’ve actually done some research on how different users are utilizing the site…it seems that it is possible to push traffic to sites of my choice use humorous wording or “sticky” titles.

    I do question how it will maintain itself without some sort of revenue model that is beyond just banner ads.

    as far as time to do it…the mobile feature makes it very easy to tweet from whereever i am. and since i am a texting whore, it fits right in with my daily activity without stealing away much of my free time.

  5. Okay, Freddy.

    I love your blog, your posts, your philosophy and the fact the you share amazing content ideas with me for the Responsible Marketing blog.

    But I, for one, believe Twitter is the perfect medium for you.

    When I dove into Twitter, in my first two weeks I met fruits, nuts and flakes. I felt like I was at a party with a bunch of people I didn’t know (and many I didn’t want to know). But I also met some brilliant and inspired people with great ideas (kinda like you). Over time, I unfollowed the low value/high noise peeps and followed more people that looked interesting.

    Now it’s one of the main ways I learn about new topics for the blog and I often use it as a testing ground for blog ideas. A lot of tweets usually equals a good post people will comment on.

    And when I finish my blog posts, I share them on Twitter. A good share of the comments on the blog come as a result of those posts.

    The 140 character thing? Irritating at first, but boy has it made me better at getting to the point.

    I don’t know if Twitter is an addiction for me, but I do find it hard to step away from sometimes. I didn’t think I had time for one more social media tool, but I would sorely miss the friendships I’ve made there.

    I know I won’t see you on Twitter anytime soon. But if you do decide to change your mind, let me know. I’ll introduce you to my followers and I’m sure the Twitter community will welcome your wit and wisdom with open arms.

    Keep up the great work, Freddy.

    Patrick Byers

  6. this article makes you sound REALLY old…..

    Freddy’s Comment: I am.

  7. https://awurl.com/36ca8RC07

    males make up 63% of Twitterers, specifically males from California, whose residents account for more than 57% of Twitter’s visitors. More interestingly, the age demographics of Twitterers show a dramatic shift. When the site became popular in early 2007, the majority of its visitors were 18-to-24-year-olds. Today the site’s largest age demographic is 35-to-44-year-olds, who make up 25.9% of its users.

  8. Im glad I dont own twitter. They are completely redundant with Facebook’s status updates. I will never use twitter.

    Web 2.0: All your time are belong to da internet.

  9. https://www.usatoday.com/travel/news/2009-02-02-hotel-airlines-travel-twitter_N.htm

    Interesting article about how Twitter is being adopted and used by “non-techy” types.


    Fun, and interesting. Does this have any marketing value from your perspective? I know it’s a bit basic, but I found myself playing with the “time slider” on different topics/keywords for more time than I’d like to admit.


    (I know, I know, I linked an article from “usa today,” which I’ve heard is the Ryan Seacrest of newspapers.) [bsnyc]

  10. Roem:

    The USA Today article is definitely interesting. I don’t question the value of Twitter for some people. I just don’t yet see it as a must-have killer app for everyone. Maybe in a few years.

    By the way, while I’d never subscribe to USA Today — and I love your comparing it to Ryan Seacrest — it is the traveler’s best friend. When I’m waiting for a connection in an airport in Arizona, I’m always psyched to find a USA Today lying around. Last thing I want to read is local Arizona news. USA Today also has a great sports section.

    The New York Times map was fun, and provided a great snapshot of American thinking during the Super Bowl. The one-word repetitions across the country reminded me of the seagulls in “Finding Nemo.” What was also interesting was the number of times the word “commercial” came up, which shows you what the Super Bowl is really all about…

    Thanks for the links, Roem!

    — Freddy

  11. I think of Twitter as a new form of communication, sort of a fusion between public blogging and IMing/text messaging. It’s very useful for quickly having conversations with anyone, and allowing anyone else to join in. Unfortunately, most people are trying to make it a social network/advertising platform/promotional tool thing, and if it continues that way, it will die. Meanwhile, Identi.ca, Laconica, and other OpenMicroBlogging-based things will fulfill the concept’s potential.

  12. Thank you for this article! I have been trying to figure out what the appeal of twitter is myself, and haven’t been able to find any. Every few days I get an update that someone is ‘following me’, usually some bdsm shop, hey, my own fault for using ‘mistressbond’ as a screenname, in reference to James Bond. Why someone would do so beats me. I keep it going sort of as an experiment, but I don’t spend any time on there. I’m already amazed at some of the status updates on facebook, and a whole site dedicated to this purpose only seems really boring. Although it can be entertaining, as well, to read articles about how Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher saved someone from killing herself by asking them not to on twitter.

  13. twitter is the basic approach to solve the infinite monkey theorem

  14. I joined twitter last week to see what it was all about. Unfortunately, I still don’t get it. Maybe its success (and gradually shift to having the 35-44 years demographics as its major block) has something to do with the economy and the number of people that have been laid off. In addition, it seems to be a more efficient medium for the traditional news junkie. On the other hand, I can see the usability from Patrick’s perspective as a research tool.

    So I think as the economy gets back on track (and people have actual work) and the principle of “dish of the day” fades away, the fat will go away as well.

  15. I signed up for Twitter few days ago and until now, I don’t really know how to use it…

    It could be more interesting to separate personal and professional use of it.
    On the one hand, your professional followers will surely not be interested by the fact that you’re buying milk or whatching an episode of Heroes. On the other hand, it would be boring for friends or relatives to read your work related tweets.

    So I think that before having a Twitter account, a user should know his own purpose and goals, offer appropriate tweets to right followers. And why not having two accounts (personal and professional) ? But, that surely take time and nobody can spend so much time on it.

  16. Well, very nicely written post on why everyone can’t handle twitter as it’s supposed. As you pointed out its a mixed bag really. It’s real advantages: Simplicity, no-ads (as of now -Elite twit may look bright in the horizon). Cons: Reliability of the service, 140 char limit (makes anyone write like a teenage geek), horribly addictive and no time to follow 1000s of followers in the process. Thanks for sharing your thoughts though.

  17. The main thing I find about Twitter is that you can contact people who interest you without having to request to be ‘friends’ or added to their network first – I have found it to be the easiest way to connect with people.

    I am now, finding it difficult to really follow everyone of my followers and I’m only at 630+.

    I have found new readers for my blog and found people to provide content for the blog also. It can be daunting to wade through, but more apps that help you search for the kind of people you’d like to connect with are helping.

    All said and done, all the promotion on FB, Twitter, LI, and all the blog reading can easily obliterate your real work – takes some skill to manage effectively I think!

  18. Interesting – Twitter is only as good as it’s user. If you know what you want to use it for and plan a marketing strategy it’s an excellent tool. It’s especially good when used to drive traffic to your blog or website. In my experience and research, you can expect approximately 10% of your followers to click through links you send out. So the more followers, regardless of what they tweet about, the more traffic. I takes about 1 month to build up a good Twitter following and community, then you can begin weeding out those you don’t want included. There are also a lot of apps to help you filter out only the tweets you actually want to read, and true friends who want to converse will dm you or use another method to chat. I guess I’m saying that it really CAN be useful for absolutely anyone, but only if used properly.

  19. Hootsuite helps you to manage multiple twitter accounts; and twitlonger lets you post thousands of characters per tweet. Find interesting people via the search box:type in phrases you care about. : ) Have a good day, peeps! I love tweeting from my phone, too!

  20. Highly recommend you connect with Patrick for a heart-to-heart … his recommendation is spot-on, IMO.

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