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Twitter: UR DOING IT WRONG

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Apologies to Chris Clarke for stealing his joke.

Blogging from me this week might be sparse, since I’m going to SXSW for the music portion—I do intend to update with thoughts from the always thought-provoking festival that tends to foreground what’s going to be trendy. With the concept of trends on the mind, though, I want to comment on this research on Twitter that was being reported in tones ranging from sad to dire. (Which sort of surprised me, since it just reinforces prior research on who uses Twitter how much.) Only 21% of Twitter uses are “active”, defined with a floor that’s way too low as having at least 10 followers, 10 followees, and having tweeted 10 times. Considering how many people like myself are on it all damn day, tweeting our heads off (I’ve tweeted over 4,900 times), I’m going to guess that the people who are really, truly active on Twitter are an even smaller group than that.

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This is treated as terrible news, because it means Twitter users aren’t “social”, whatever that means. But it’s actually the sort of news you should expect. Online life differs from offline life in some ways, but not that much. And spheres of influence are an aspect of online life that is simply replicating offline life. Remember that whole cool part of The Tipping Point where Malcolm Gladwell talked about how certain trends start with a few people and then radiate out rapidly once adopted by those people who are highly influential on a whole lot of people? That sort of thing is happening online. A few people exert outsized influence, and most people like it that way. Because it creates order and trust. If everyone out there was just firing on all cylinders at once, generating content with no filters, the information overload would paralyze us. I think a system where a relatively small percentage of people on Twitter carry the weight of pushing out information on it all day—and having other people move that information with retweets and replies—is a fine system. It evolved that way because it’s working for people.

I suppose the fear is that people aren’t using it for back-and-forth conversations, but instead are using it to create a multi-layered news and information aggregator, one where you can rapidly customize your feed to find out exactly what certain people are thinking and talking about—and not what others are thinking or talking about. But back and forth conversations on Twitter can get dull really fast. It’s just not good for that. It’s a lot better for agenda-setting. I suppose the fact that some people are hugely influential and most people have little influence is supposed to worry us, but I’m pretty sanguine about it. The people who don’t try to set the agenda do influence the system, because they decide who will in fact set the agenda by giving them attention. They decide who they trust or find interesting by following them and retweeting their tweets, and that helps other people decide who they trust, and the people who get that trust put in them are just saying stuff that people are interested in, so what’s the harm? It’s really how human systems work.

And so what if people link a lot? They usually say something useful about the link, and often that’s all you need. It’s great that influential people can exert their influence efficiently, I say. Better yet, it seems Twitter is encouraging specialization. People who start getting a lot of followers generally have an idea of what their followers care about, and they start to speak to that subject more and more, and in the process, become more proficient and better aggregators and disseminators. And their audiences benefit from their growing expertise.

I don’t see a downside. Facebook’s interface seems better equipped for maintaining daily contact with your friends than Twitter, which reads more like an endless stream of information. And that people aren’t keeping regular, meaningful contact with dozens of people a day doesn’t bother me. We don’t have the time or cognitive space to regard that many people at all points in time like intimates. But if we have casual information and trend-setting content streaming at us from specialized sources, everyone gets a little of what they want. I think it’s working out great. And if Twitter wants to make money at this, they might consider working with the needs of the users they have, instead of being upset that we aren’t doing a “better” job of using their service as they originally envisioned.

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