Why are you on Twitter? Seriously! Why?

Why are you on Twitter? Seriously! Why?

Last week, the Aussie press reported, with the usual tall poppy slashing glee, that Twitter’s phenomenal rise was an illusion and that the reality was a massive 60% monthly churn. According to The Australian — and with similar stories appearing in most daily papers — 60% of new Twitter users stop returning to the social networking site within a month of registering.

The media love-affair with Twitter was always going to peter out once the gloss wore off. It’s no surprise to me that the novelty evaporates for a lot of users, on discovering that following Ashton Kutcher or Stephen Fry doesn’t enhance their life to any exciting degree. The way the media spruiked Twitter to the masses was wrong – it isn’t about who has the most followers or what Hugh Jackman said about the “Opera Center”. It isn’t even about getting up-to-the-minute updates on swine flu or Mumbai terrorist attacks – both of which certainly allowed as much missinformation and confusion to spread as they did genuine facts.

Twitter is primarily about sharing content and ideas within a specific group, a hive mind of connected thinking that requires everyone to participate.

What are you doing on Twitter?

Twitter is not right for everyone. Not every business should be on Twitter just as not every social media junkie should be on Twitter. Those Facebook and MySpace addicts who leapt on Twitter as the next big thing soon discovered that tweeting a funny line about the boyfriend wasn’t nearly as powerful there as
it was in other networks. On Twitter, such random and inconsequential musings are lost, diluted in a stream of millions of thoughts, and there’s no guarantee that the people you hoped would see the tweet, your friends and followers, would even see it. Therefore, Twitter is fundamentally different to the
broadcast-to-friends model of Facebook and others. To engage on Twitter requires more of a focussed and direct approach to cut through the noise. It requires intent — moreso than any other social network, Twitter requires you to give in order to receive.

Twitter is the last place a person should be posting inconsequential stuff about breakfast or cats or – ironically — answering the Twitter question “what are you doing”. Let’s be honest — although they may be cute, those tweets don’t build followers, attract attention or serve a useful purpose. I still do tweet fluff like this occasionally, but only as filler between the real meaty posts and never because I expect a reaction or any real benefit. The tweets that genuinely build authority, get retweeted and attract new followers are those that offer something of value; a piece of content, a link, a witty and original riposte, a new observation with direct relevance, breaking (real) news, etc.

Twitalyzer is an online service that attempts to rate a Twitter user’s impact. It does so by analysing
your tweets for certain characteristics and determining the response of the Twitter community. Therefore, tweets that contain a link are given value, tweets that respond directly to another user or contain an @ reference have value, tweets that contain a hashtag and are therefore determinined to be part of a specific themed conversation have value, etc, etc. Suddenly, the straightforward tweet, about how much I love minty toothpaste and wish it was socially acceptable to eat it from the tube at my desk, seems perfectly irrelevant and inconsequential – and as a result, ephemeral. Blink, and it’s gone. Unmissed, unloved and — quite possibly — unread.

The only people who can genuinely get away with simply answering “What are you doing” are celebrities. Following a celebrity isn’t about networking or starting a conversation as much as it is about eavesdroping on their daily lives – a new 2.0 version of the gossip mags. No longer do you need to read New Idea to get a media-filtered, paparazzi-fed and distorted view of Britney Spears’ life, you can follow her tweets directly and get a version distorted by her PR machine instead.

Twitter is not for everyone

No, Twitter was never going to be relevant for everyone. I am not surprised there is a high churn rate and I don’t think it reveals any shortfalls in Twitter thinking or reveals any cracks in the business concept. Twitter is a great tool for certain people, just like a shovel is a great tool for a gardener. It isn’t a great tool for others – I have very little need for a shovel as my Dad will tell you (between gritted teeth). If anything, the fact that Twitter churns more than both Facebook and MySpace is actually a good thing. If Twitter only retains 40% of new users, compared to approximately 70% for Facebook and MySpace, it means that only those people with a genuine use for the tool stick around. That can only mean a better environment for those left behind, with less dilution and stronger interactions.

Think about it – Facebook is used by almost everyone we know. We don’t need Twitter to have the same kind of reach because we already have Facebook or whichever community most of our friends and family have joined. Should my Mum join Twitter to network with me? Should my daughter? Old school friends? No! There’s no benefit to them being on Twitter and following me. I’m not going to play Scrabble with them in 140 characters or attack their zombie with my vampire or become a pirate or whatever ridiculously dumb and time-wasting app people are adding this week.

It is no coincidence that some of the most prevalent users of Twitter are those from marketing and IT industries, media and journalism. These are the people for whom Twitter is relevant and works as a tool. I come across very few housewives looking to meet new people and even fewer teens hangin’ wit their homies. It’s just not built to be used that way. (My 17 year old daughter continually rants that Twitter is rubbish and is only for ‘losers’. Being her Dad, I’m used to being ranked with the losers by now). I’m sure there are some teens and housewives, old school friends and mums on Twitter, but these are more likely to be the ones who very quickly move on when they realise it isn’t the 24 hour party they were promised but requires a different approach to some of the other communities, messenger programs or chatrooms. Therefore, Twitter should not be compared to Facebook when benchmarking its success.

A newspaper article may make it seem like there are gems of wisdom spinning out of John Cleese or Oprah in a continual flood of celebrity wit and wisdom, but things just don’t flow that fast. After the newbies have waited seven expectant hours between tweets from Christopher Walken, their patience may be thinner than a catwalk model on hunger strike. Twitter is not a spectator sport – you need to do more than follow others and expect to be entertained. Twitter is a contact sport, requiring users to get in amongst it, throw some punches, shout some ideas, agree, disagree, share, debate and influence.

If you like to watch, Twitter isn’t for you. If you just want to keep up with a group of friends, Twitter probably isn’t for you. If you want to celebrity-watch, Twitter almost definitely isn’t for you. But if you thrive on discussion and are always on the lookout for vibrant content and aren’t afraid of saying what you think loud and proud, then Twitter may well be the best tool at your disposal.

Maybe it’s time Twitter dropped the “What are you doing?” line. If you are a Twitter user, when was the last time you intentionally answered that question?


  1. Well said. Though I would still consider myself a newbie to Twitter, I’ve found it a much more relevant tool than other social media platforms out there. Not everyone gets it, and that’s perfectly OK by me.
    You’re right – some of the appeal relates to the industry you are in. As a copywriter, the wealth of information I’ve seen tweeted from other writers – without having to dig through hundreds of RSS feeds – makes Twitter a valuable tool.

  2. ageing_hipster says

    Right on the money, capturing what I’ve been trying to tell people for weeks. It ain’t the form that’s interesting, it’s the people and the content.

  3. I agree with your analysis of how Twitter works (or doesn’t) for users with different goals.
    To expand on what you categorise as ‘fluff tweets’ and ‘meaty tweets’ (that sounds like a brand of cat food), the fluff tweets are valuable if you are seeking to develop your brand personality because the medium is about personal access and connection. They give a sense of the attitude behind the brand.
    The meaty tweets are, as you say, about the business you’re in and may be the reason you are on Twitter. But a tweet stream of purely meaty tweets may strip away any brand personality or tone of voice and position you simply as a broadcaster.
    It’s a balance thing that needs to be developed as you go.

  4. Huh… not sure i agree completely with your point of view. In P3 you say
    “Twitter is primarily about sharing content and ideas within a specific group, a hive mind of connected thinking that requires everyone to participate.”
    but in P5 you say that “tweeting about yourself” doesn’t “build followers, attract attention or serve a useful purpose” and further in the paragraph it doesn’t “build authority, get retweeted and attract new followers”
    If it’s about sharing idea within a group… why worry about building followers or authority etc? And, again, if it’s about ideas, I want to know about the people that I’m dealing with. You can simply “Topscott” your opinion (http://eduspaces.net/csessums/weblog/666547.html) but I’d rather actually be able to follow your work and get a sense of who you are than gauge your intelligence by who is willing to publish your books.
    People and personalities are very important in my networks… and they matter to me when I present myself. The ‘fluff’ tweets that I send out say a great deal about me… good to some… bad to others… this is the BIG message of twitter for me. People are more than their professional work.

  5. The point I was making was that fluff tweets aren’t the way to make Twitter successful. As RPBrown points out, quite rightly, fluff tweets provide personality and attitude in between the ‘meaty tweets’, but the way Twitter was marketed in the media was that is was all about the fluff. I use fluff tweets, we all do, but they are a lower proportion compared to those containing links, specific nuggets of info or are part of a conversation with specific people or hashtags.
    And as for why followers and authority are important, there is no group or hive mind if you’re not being followed. The larger the hive the better, if everyone contributes. If it’s just thousands of people following me, for example, that are merely hoping I’ll follow them back to improve stats, then there’s no value. That’s why I’m quite ruthless who I follow back now when I have new followers. And – often – people follow those who they perceive to add value with content, entertainment or insight. (Unless you are one of those just mass following thousands to try and boost your own stats. Go away. Seriously.)
    Definitely lots to debate and discuss here and I think we’ll continue to see Twitter usage evolve and consolidate for those that use it well.

  6. Your last comment touches on the topic of mass following versus organic ‘interest’ based following. These are two very different approaches and I’m sure cases can be made for both, which probably boils down to personal style. Perhaps a separate blog on this topic?

  7. Yes, that is definitely a whole topic in its self. But the nutshell argument would be that mass-following thousands of unconnected people purely to generate follow-backs adds very little value, IMHO. Following those with direct value to you (and who could extract value from you as well) makes for a more powerful twitter stream.
    Hmmm… time to start writing the post, methinks. Stay tuned.

  8. Jon's Dad says

    I cannot remember Jon EVER picking up a spade, or a fork – although if he could not plead homework priority he would push the lawnmower around, if pressured. I wonder what he may have been saying about me on Twitter… I may finally have to learn to Tweet, but not until I have planted out the tomatoes! Would I could be so single minded…

  9. Totally agree with the statement that Twitter isn’t for everyone. From a professional perspective, Twitter is of most value in fast-paced industries where real time information is of high value. Which is why it’s so popular amongst us tech, marketing & journalist types.
    But… I haven’t tried to convert a single friend to Twitter from beyond those industries because the value simply isn’t there. Micro communities for their industries probably haven’t formed, and the reality is that they don’t need their information RIGHT NOW.

  10. Twitter, like most social networking tools/sites, is what you make of it. If you follow anyone just for the number then you probably won’t have an experience that adds much value to your life. If you connect with the right people (for you) it can be an exciting and beneficial experience.

  11. jungle jane says

    Sigh…you just HAD to have a go at cats, didn’t you?

  12. Many small business owners are asking themselves the question “Should I be on Twitter?” right now. We recently positioned a client to be on Fox and Friends to discuss the topic “To Tweet or Not To Tweet”:
    ~Drew Gerber, CEO