Who Killed Twitter?

Thursday Jun 11th 2009 by Mike Elgan
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Statistics about Twitter usage show a far different picture than the media hype suggests. Why did Twitter jump the shark?

As murder-mysteries go, this one is baffling, in part because the corpse is still breathing. The one-word answer is: Oprah. But the full truth is far more interesting.

Twitter was the hottest, fastest-growing, most attention-grabbing social service for a while, but suddenly it appears that many of its users don't actually use it and its growth is no longer growing.

Let's check the facts:

• The Internet marketing firm HubSpot says more than half of all people who signed up for an account never posted a tweet (55%), aren't following anyone (56%) and have no followers themselves (53%).

• Nielsen Online reported two months ago that most new users (60%) bail on Twitter after creating an account.

• Harvard Business School says the average Twitter user tweets once and never again.

• Twitter's meteoric growth came to a screeching halt in May. Mashable reports that during the month of May, Twitter's visitor growth suddenly "flatlined," growing only a 1.5%.

• TechCrunch says that the ol' 80-20 rule is in full effect on Twitter: 20% of Twitter users are creating 80% of the activity. Harvard Business School says it's even more extreme than that: 10% of Twitter users post 90% of the Tweets.

• A survey from Pace University and the Participatory Media Network found that only 22% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 use Twitter (though nearly all have social networking profiles).

These different studies don't all agree with each other exactly, but they paint a similar picture. It appears that most people who sign up for Twitter don't use it, and those who do use it are using it less often.

What's going on here? I think I can explain nearly all of this, based on many conversations with hundreds of people I've talked with after previous columns on Twitter, and also with friends and family who have varying degrees of interest in Twitter. Here goes:

Is Twitter dead?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, Twitter as the Facebook-competitor, the sweeping cultural phenomenon, the Google killer and all the rest is dead. Or, more accurately, never existed. It was a media mirage, a product of the echo chamber.

Ultimately, Twitter is nothing more than an extensible, SMS-friendly status update service, with the optional ability to direct messages at individual people. Nice, but it's no cure for cancer. The media hype was overblown, obviously.

The real Twitter isn't dead at all. A large and growing number of people are still getting a lot of value out of it, and that will continue.

Why do people sign up for Twitter, then not use it?

I did this myself. I signed up for Twitter in late 2007, looked around and didn't really understand it, then stopped checking it. If some of these studies would have been conducted back then, I would have been one of the laggards who posted only one message and didn't really follow anybody.

Late last year I had a "twitpiphany," and realized its value. Now I post about 15 tweets a day and have something north of 12,800 followers.

I think millions of people are doing what I did. They're signing on, scratching their heads, then wandering away.

An episode from the sitcom "The King of Queens" demonstrated how this works -- not with Twitter, but with cell phones. The protagonist's aging father-in-law Arthur gets this vague idea that he's missing out on what's happening "in the modern world." So he buys a cell phone, goes to Starbucks and sits there for hours staring at the phone. Nobody calls. He doesn't get it, etc.

This is exactly what people experience with Twitter. They hear everyone talking about it, sign up and hear the sound of nothing. Even if they let Twitter find other Twitter friends on Gmail, Yahoo or AOL, or sign up for a few "suggested users," it's not very compelling at first.

Just like with cell phones, Twitter is pointless unless you engage. You've got to seek out like-minded people to follow. You've got to post. You have to be active, or it doesn't make any sense.

Why is a minority of users sending all the tweets?

The Harvard Business School team concluded from their study that Twitter is more of a one-to-many publishing service (like a blog) than it is a one-to-one conversation service (like chat or e-mail). Twitter is dominated by people who use it that way.

Next Page: Why don't young adults use Twitter?

The most active users are publicity-seeking celebrities, media outlets, companies and authors (guilty as charged!). These are people or organizations who have a vested interest in frequent tweets. And they dominate Twitter.

Most people don't have a compelling reason to spend the time broadcasting to strangers, but get value from the publicity seekers.

Why did Twitter "Flatline" in May?

I think the media hype around Twitter was getting ready to naturally subside, when talk show star Oprah Winfrey made a big stink about Twitter on national TV. This happened in mid-April, which was enough to push April numbers into the stratosphere, matching previous months' growth.

Nearly all the people responsible for the tidal wave of sign-ups and traffic to www.twitter.com subsided by the end of April, leaving poor Twitter looking like an abandoned warehouse in May. In fact, I think that if you remove the Oprah traffic, it would have been a much subtler transition from March to May.

Also: I think Oprah was Twitter's jump-the-shark moment for the media. Once Oprah tells her TV cult audience that something is the new hotness, it is at that moment officially old and busted.

Still, the rapid growth is slowing. Why? I think one reason is that several types of users have become turned off by Twitter. First is the analytical social networking professionals that dominated a lot of the conversation in the early days. Twitter has become a stadium, rather than a brainstorming room, and so they've moved on to services where they can have a meaningful conversation -- FriendFeed, for example.

Trend chasers have also moved on, now that Twitter isn't trendy.

It's also worth pointing out that many of the most active users don't visit twitter.com anymore. Many just log in using a cell phone app or third-party application. I'm one of them.

I used to use Twitter via Twitter.com exclusively. Now I use one of two other third-party services for posting, and another desktop app for viewing Tweets. Half the time, I'm using my iPhone. I hardly ever visit twitter.com, so all my activity isn't measured by some of the studies.

In a nutshell, Twitter is normalizing. It's no longer a new frontier, an elite club or a culture-transforming medium. It's just a service for sending messages.

Why don't young adults use Twitter?

As Harvard correctly figured out, Twitter is mostly a one-to-many medium. Young adults, who grew up with online communication, have no desire to talk to strangers. They love communicating with friends and acquaintances, which is why social networks like Facebook are overwhelmingly preferred.

Twitter is appealing to people with something to sell, or people who want to network professionally. It's also a great way to follow a hobby or intellectual interest.

In other words, it's for older people, mainly.

So is Twitter dead? Far from it. But the Twitter hype bubble has surely burst (thanks, Oprah!). Now those of us who actually get value from it can enjoy it with less of the hype, expectation and noise than we've been seeing in the past few months.

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