Somewhere in the back of our minds, we’ve all known that Twitter is in trouble. I don’t mean because every once in a while someone wonders aloud how the thing is going to make anyone any money. That’s somewhere in the front of our minds. The recent spin on buying friends for $1 pops the question up again, and we look at, and we talk about money often enough.
No, I mean that thing we all pretend isn’t there every single day as we bash out our 140 characters, ReTweet, @whoever, and fairly uselessly LOL to 100 or several thousand people who have no idea why we’re LOLing.
The problem, which is perhaps really two-fold, was illustrated nicely in an article in the New York Times.
Let me say first, Twitter is an absolutely brilliant service. In fact, I might be inclined to say that part of the reason it is doomed is that I like it. I’ve been picking losers in the tech field since back when I had not just a Commodore 64, but a 128, and an Amiga 500 as well.
What’s great about Twitter is absolutely simple – people. Everyone gets that. Twitter can be amazing at times. The number of interesting news items I have received in only the last two or three days within minutes of events happening is mind-blowing. More importantly, the connections to people never cease to amaze me. Twitter somehow blows down all doors. Everyone talks to everyone, and it doesn’t matter who they are. People even talk to me. It’s practically ridiculous.
David Pogue tells a quick story that delivers the power of Twitter in the above article -
“A few months ago, I was one of 12 judges for a MacArthur grant program in Chicago. As we looked over one particular application, someone asked, “Hasn’t this project been tried before?”
Everyone looked blankly at each other.
Then the guy sitting next to me typed into the Twitter box. He posed the question to his followers. Within 30 seconds, two people replied, via Twitter, that it had been done before. And they provided links.”
That’s the power of the “internet” in a way that people have dreamed of for years.
Here’s the secret. That thing that’s been nagging at us all. The white elephant in the room.
The problem with Twitter is the same thing – people.
On the easy side of that door is another tidbit from Mr. Pogue’s article -
“…I posted these two problems to my 1,900 followers. Most tried to help troubleshoot, but there was the predictable backlash: “Stop asking these newbie questions,” wrote one guy. “Makes you look like a moron.”"
That’s the part people brush away pretty easily, and with good reason. Most people on Twitter aren’t obnoxious, and largely because it’s too easy to turn them off.
The real problem is that people don’t know what to do with Twitter. Mr. Pogue talks about this, and his article is something of a beginner’s guide, but he’s only attacking one small piece of the problem. In a way it is a very real problem. Just look at all the people on Facebook who refuse to use Twitter despite the fact that all they do on Facebook is Twitter. But, the real piece that’s eating away at Twitter, and may tell of its eventual demise (however unlikely that seems to its users) is not the people who aren’t on it because they don’t know what to do with it, but the people who are on it and don’t know what to do with it.
When people don’t know what to do with something, but think it’s rather cool, they do one of two things – they do everything, or they do nothing. Because people float around, and aren’t able to lock into a real purpose for their Twitter fascination, they make something up by falling into one of those two camps.
The everythings jump immediately into the pure popularity game. They follow everyone. The tweet and retweet everything. They @everyone, responding to every tweet they see. They follow, unfollow, and follow again in case you just missed them somehow. They follow and wait around for a little while, and if you don’t follow them back they unfollow and move on to the next 100 people who hopefully will. I, lowly and meaningless in the Twitterverse, get at least three or four followers a day who aren’t there the next day. Even I do not actually piss people off that fast.
A new tool for measuring how fabulous you are pops up everyday, and they subscribe to them all with the one goal of figuring out how to get more followers, and the jazziest rating possible. (I have a really fabulous 95 on Twitter Grader, but have no idea what that means) They comment on every blog post by the big names (I’m here! I’m here), marketing themselves in every way they can like some game of Six Degrees of What Will Get Someone to Follow Me on Twitter.
The nothings, pretty simply, do nothing. They’re a lot like the everythings, but they have self-esteem issues. They follow, and they get information. That’s actually not a completely negative thing. Judging just by my own stats, following on Twitter is the new Subscribe. My posts are auto-twittered (or tweeted, or whatever), and people know that. People are clearly subscribing to me by following me. That’s a win/win as far as I can see. Why just subscribe to a blog, when you can subscribe, and get the added tweets of whatever other nonsense I might send their way?
But, I rather want those people to do something. Not my followers, of course, but the do nothings in general. They are at least finding their own purpose to Twitter, and they’re a part of the thing without truly being a detriment.
Here’s the downfall.
Sure, there are lots of great people on Twitter. There are established Twitter personalities, and people who are great sources of information. There are even people who are famous for nothing except being famous on Twitter. There are tons of services because the people who are on, and who have locked into the function and power of Twitter, put forth a lot of effort for something they see as a great idea made real.
But, these do everythings and do nothings… they’re an overwhelming majority of the newcomers.
David Pogue mentions asking people at conferences how many of them are on Twitter. He says it’s usually 1 in 500. These are tech and education conferences. Where I live, the local tweets function of Tweetie on the iPhone can only ever find the same 10 people sending out Tweets, and two of them are local news stations.
“So what?” you’re saying, and how is this the demise of Twitter?
The fact is, Twitter can’t live forever where it is right now. And, the problem isn’t getting more people, it’s figuring out a way to get those people to connect. Pogue’s article also talks about how he was baffled by the Twitter hype for the longest time. If we are only now getting through to tech columnists, how much work is there to do?
As I mentioned, there are a number of great things going on at Twitter, and there are hundreds of great people offering themselves and their services to make it a better place.
Let me give you a list I through together very quickly…
But first, just as a bit of an experiment, I Tweeted yesterday asking people to tell me what they were screening. I thought I’d show that people will really talk to you, even little old “less than 300 followers” me. I got the strangest results.
SceneStealrEric from Scene-Stealers.com told me he was watching Let the Right One In. Cheers to Eric for being generally awesome there, and for watching a great movie. But, seven other people emailed me, and said nothing in their email beyond the title of a show or movie. Basically, they Tweeted me via email. I don’t know what to do with that. Do they think I’m going to refer to them by their email address? Or, am I suppose to just say… “someone was watching The Mentalist“? Could you somehow be a more perfect example of being on Twitter, but not getting Twitter? And, could there be seven of you?
If Twitter has a one-word motto, or mantra, or focus, or purpose… that word is – Share.
If new users have a question that they mean in a thousand ways… that question is How?
Someone has got to do a better job of answering that question.
Here’s a list of a few cool things.
Follow Twitter on Twitter
Follow Twitter_Tips to get ideas on how to improve your experience.
Follow MrTweet to get suggestions on who to follow.
Follow grader to get a jazzy score you can show off to all your friends.
Follow mashable to get lots of tips, news, and generally find great things.
Follow problogger, who also runs TwiTips, a blog about getting more out of Twitter.
Follow abartelby who will frequently babble about Twitter, and wrote FOLLOW FAIL: The Top 10 Reasons I Will Not Follow You in Return on Twitter (and followed me back!)
Check out TweetSuite, a WP plugin that really takes integrating Twitter into other parts of the internet to a whole new level.
Check these out, and many others. Build new and better ways for Twitter to understand Twitter.
Are You Screening?
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