Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Twitter - what's it for?

What role does Twitter play these days? A year or so ago, I twittered a lot. These days, I check the Moviestorm Twitter feed more often than I check my own, and most days I don't tweet at all. Facebook, for all its faults, seems to have completely supplanted Twitter in almost every respect.

There are two clear signs that Twitter is losing ground, not just in numbers, but in the way it's being used. Most obviously, it's no longer a place for conversations. In 2009, you could tweet a comment, and people would tweet back. To be sure, they were awkward, stilted conversations, but they happened. Nowadays, very few tweets elicit any reply at all. By contrast, almost every post I make on Facebook gets a response, and often several. It's not just what's being said, it's that Twitter simply isn't a good medium for conversation. If you look at those people who link their FB and Twitter feeds, you can quickly see the different reactions they get to the same posts on each. Twitter's not threaded, so you have to keep track of the conversations the old way. And there's no simple mechanism for replying to everyone who's interested in that thread; all your tweets are either completely public or directed at specific individuals. What's more, Twitter has no equivalent of the much derided "like" button. This simple interaction is a remarkably useful piece of social structure. It's the equivalent of a smile; a non-verbal way to show that you appreciate what's being said. It doesn't necessarily advance the conversation, but it does give people social standing and allow people to be involved in a passive, but overt way.

The second, less obvious symptom is the huge downturn in retweets and sharing on Twitter. I recently read a piece by Seth Godin in which he noted that only about 1 in 6 tweets gets retweeted. That was written in early 2010. Looking at my feed now, I'd say it was more like 1 in 30. Most of what gets put on Twitter goes no further. Most of what I see retweeted is from celebrities like Stephen Fry or Warren Ellis, which is strange when you think about it for a moment - they have millions of followers, and everyone who's interested in them follows them anyway, so who are these retweets aimed at?

A Twitter link: it's almost like reading code, and I have to open a browser to see what's at the other end.

Compare that with Facebook, where sharing is common. Again, it's not the content, it's the medium. Part of it is that Facebook is a much richer experience. If I want to link to a video, you can see a thumbnail, read a description, and then watch that video right in your browser. The same link in Twitter consists of a shortened URL (which tells you nothing) and a few words, then you have to go somewhere else to see what I'm showing you. Then, if you like it, go back to Twitter, find the post, and retweet, probably trimming 16 more characters off the description to allow room for RT @MattKelland: at the beginning. Tweets are almost like little ciphers, filled with strange hashes, disemvowelled words, bizarre characters, and geeky things that look like code. Facebook, by contrast, is more like the language we speak.

A Facebook link: useful information, immediate feeling of community from the likes and comments, easy ways to interact and share, and I can watch it right there.

It feels as if Twitter has outlived its usefulness. It went from the preserve of a few tech addicts to a vehicle for celebrities and brands to push out robotic marketing messages. Tweet about visiting a friend in Chandler's Ford, and you'll find yourself followed by Ford dealerships wanting to tell you about their special offers. Say you're moving your Web site to a new server, and you'll get bombarded by removal companies, software companies, and Web designers. Sure, it's a great way for the Governator to tell millions of people what he's doing, but everyone else is lost in the noise. And there's a lot of noise. Twitter never did have a very good signal to noise ratio, but it's gone from the gossip of a coffee shop to the hubbub of a giant mall.

There's a lot wrong with Facebook, but it seems to provide a far better communication medium than Twitter. And, of course, they have a proven, successful business model, which Twitter doesn't. I'll be interested to see whether Twitter turns into the MySpace of 2011.

No comments: