Social Media – The Twitter Crack’d

Had my attention drawn to a piece of research – which you can see here

http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/cs/2009/06/new_twitter_research_men_follo.html

by the Harvard Business School, which – and I’m paraphrasing – says that among Twitter users, the median lifetime number of tweets is one. It also says that the top 10% of prolific Twitter users account for 90% of content. (I don’t know whether this means there’s 90% of prolific Twitter users who, well, aren’t very prolific, or whether the use of the word prolific is simply an academic trying to brighten his writing style. I suspect the latter.)

Somewhere on this blog – I think – or perhaps I posted the thory somewhere else – well, whatever – the theory I had was that Twitter, like other established social networks (eg Facebook, LinkedIn) would go in a cycle. Early adopter, fashionista, marketer, masses. (At this point, I’d like to preen slightly – I was on LinkedIn over four years ago – making me, if not an early adopter, at least a fashionista, nice and near the front! This is genuinely the first time I have ever been anywhere near the avant garde. I’m breathless just thinking about it.)

The social network development cycle – if we can call it that (and I think we can) – is not really a theory – I’ve seen it with LinkedIn and Ecademy, and others have told me it’s happened with Facebook (although Facebook is less business-focused and thus still has a loyal core who use it, seemingly, to organise their lives).

What it means is that, if you are lucky, you arrive in the network near enough to the beginning to get some value out of it. Before everyone piles in and it becomes impossible to build relationships and have decent conversation because of all the background noise and bumbling idiots, who are only there because they’re worried they might miss something.

Personally, of course, I don’t believe there is much value to be had from social networks – not enough to merit the current hoo-ha (but that’s another song) – but if there IS any value, then it’s to be had early on. Arrive past the peak and your time is wasted.

The trouble is that the cycle time seems to be getting faster – which will eventually mean that unless you’re the very first person in the network, there’ll be no value. And the value-hunters (who are the people you’ll want to have your ‘conversations’ with) will know this. So you’ll find yourself the first person in a network which no-one will join because they’ll realise there’s no value in being second. And so the social media phenomenon becomes social isolation, with hundreds of early adopters waiting in virtual rooms for meaningful conversations that will never happen. Which is kinda sad. But inevitable.

Anyway, Twitter. It appears to have done the cycle already. Any value that was coming out of it has probably now gone. The masses have invaded it and, when they found it took a bit of dedication and input – well – they abandoned it. Now what you have is a selection of loudmouths (the 10% of prolific Twitterers) desperately competing for the attention of an increasingly disinterested audience.

It’s all about vanity, always was. How many followers do I have? How interesting must my life and my random meanderings be for me to have that many followers? Uh-oh – my follower number isn’t growing – I must post more! Meanwhile, those masses who joined because everyone else was and they don’t want to miss anything, who ended up following people because – well – that’s what you do, because they were mates, because they were famous, for whatever reason – these people can’t be bothered any more.

The truth is, Twitter was never about the valuable conversation – which is what the pro-social media lobby tell me (again and again and again) is the big benefit of social media – it was about shouting loudly. It is a vanity publishing tool, not requiring or desiring interaction. There’s a reason for calling it a micro-blog – because if you bother to look at a cross-section of the blogosphere, you’ll find a frightening number of people who think that their cats are interesting. Or indeed that their thoughts on communications are interesting.

I know there are those who are trying to use Twitter to improve their business – I happened across a search consultant who was using Twitter to post about the role assignments he was handling and the words of wisdom he was garnering from various industry heavyweights. I would imagine – I would hope – that maybe he got a few decent candidates as reward from the efforts he put in.

But, unfortunately, like it or not, it’s the wrong medium. It’s short form. Influencing, encouraging people to do stuff, building reputation – it’s long form. Twitter does not encourage people to explore or to think. It’s disposable and transitory, has a limited lifespan and thus – I’m afraid – has limited value to the corporate communicator.

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