Twitter is No Longer a Village

February 26th, 2013

I’ve noticed a distinct change in how people use Twitter in the last year:

1. People are increasingly not using Twitter for actual two-way conversations or interactions. Instead it’s being used more for one-way “fire and forget” posting. People just post into the aether, without knowing or even caring if anyone actually reads their posts.

2. People are spending less time reading Twitter messages, they are paying less attention to what other people say. This is because it’s too difficult to keep up with what your friends are up to on Twitter: we all follow too many people now, and there are just too many messages flowing by all the time.

These two shifts are going to fundamentally change what Twitter is for, and how it is used. It is gradually becoming less of a social network where people interact, and more of a place to simply express opinions.

Maybe in a way this is a return to the original intent of Twitter — a place where you could post what you were doing. That was originally a one-way activity. However soon after those early days a community formed and Twitter became conversational and highly interactive for a while. Until it got so big that it lost that village feeling.

Twitter used to be a village — it was in fact the epicenter of the global village for a while. But now it has become a gigantic industrialized urban sprawl. A megacity. It’s lost that feeling of intimacy and community it once had.

Today Twitter is a mass market backchannel for consumers to express themselves to businesses and media providers, and for businesses to market to their audiences. It is also a place where people express themselves around live events like sports games, television shows and breaking news.

But while people and businesses are increasingly expressing themselves on Twitter, they are actually doing less listening to each other there.

Listening is on the decline because the message volumes on Twitter are now so high that it just is impossible to keep up. There are too many messages flowing by all the time. It’s information overload. There’s no point in even trying to pay attention to what people you follow are saying.

Of course people still pay attention to replies, mentions and Retweets of them — at least if they are not famous. Famous people get far too many mentions from strangers and so they usually just ignore them as well.

I’m willing to bet that you aren’t paying attention to Twitter. Your friends aren’t either. At least not like in years past.

So who is listening to Twitter if it’s not all of us? Businesses. They are listening, analyzing, and using this data to gauge perception, market and advertise. This is where the real value of Twitter seems to be headed: It’s a channel for people to express themselves around products, brands, events and content. And it’s a tool for businesses to learn about their audiences and market to them in real-time. Twitter is becoming our global backchannel.

As a side-effect of these shifts, Twitter is feeling less social every day. It’s no longer a place where people listen or pay attention to one another anymore. It’s certainly not a place where people have conversations beyond the occasional reply. Instead, it’s more like a giant stadium where everyone is shouting at the same time.

This probably means that as a publishing and messaging channel Twitter will become less effective over time.

As message volumes keep growing, what are the chances that your audience will be looking at the exact second that your message is actually visible above the fold, before it is buried by 1000 new Tweets? The chances are getting lower every day. And nobody scrolls down to look at older messages anymore. Why look back through the past when there are so many new Tweets arriving in the present?

This means that the likelihood of your intended audience seeing anything you post to Twitter is headed towards zero.

Unless of course, you’re famous. If you’re famous you can post once and get a thousands of Retweets and that might get your post noticed. But for most of us, and even most brands, most of their posts are going to be missed. They are like shots in the dark.

If you’re not famous you can still get noticed however. If you are willing to pay. You can buy visibility for your Tweets by making them into Promoted Tweets. But ads are different than conversation. And a network where people have to advertise to each other to be heard would not feel social at all.

Should this be fixed? I’m willing to bet that Twitter will probably not put much effort in reducing noise, or adding really good personalization, precisely because such measures would compete with Promoted Tweets. Promoted Tweets make money precisely because there is increasing noise in Twitter, just like Google Ads make money because Google is not as relevant as it could be.

These trends throw into question the value of posting anything to Twitter today, at least if your goal is to reach your followers organically and get attention. That is just increasingly unlikely.

If you really want to reach people on Twitter, the best bet will be to advertise there.

But advertise to whom? If attention to Twitter is declining because people are posting more but reading less, that would reduce attention to Twitter ads as well.

Ironically it’s the noise on Twitter that creates a need for Twitter ads, but it’s that same noise that will ultimately cause people to not pay attention to Twitter anymore. And if people pay less attention to Twitter’s content, there will be less of an audience for Twitter’s ads. It’s just too much work to find the needles you care about in all that hay.

The noise problem on Twitter is a side-effect of mass adoption. But it’s also a side-effect of a growing mismatch between how Twitter was designed as a product and the size of audience, and message volumes, it now supports today. Twitter was not designed for this level of audience or activity, and it shows. Twitter was designed to be village, but it’s now a megacity.

It will be interesting to see how Twitter evolves to meet this challenge. Can they restore the balance by creating ways for consumers to filter the noise? Can they attract more attention and content consumption?

My theory is that Twitter may inevitably focus more on advertising outside of Twitter, than inside, perhaps by using a retargeting approach on sites that use Twitter OATH to register their users. Here’s how this could work:

  1. Twitter can potentially see the interests of anyone who posts content to Twitter.
  2. When any member of Twitter uses their Twitter credentials to login to any site that uses Twitter OATH as a login (including Twitter.com), Twitter can place a cookie in their browser.
  3. Then any site that uses Twitter OATH can detect that user and associate them with their interest profile from Twitter.
  4. With this knowledge any site in the Twitter network can target ads to Twitter users’ personalized interests when they get visits from those users.

This technique is already being applied by one company, LocalResponse. I wonder when Twitter will start doing it themselves. If they do this, Twitter can become an ad network that uses what people talk about inside of Twitter, to target ads to them outside of Twitter.

Ultimately this may solve the attention problem in Twitter. Don’t even bother getting people to pay attention to content inside of Twitter. Just get them to talk about their interests and then target ads to them when they pay attention to content outside of Twitter. This “retargeting” approach is working well for Facebook and it’s only a matter of time until Twitter does it. Of course I’m sure Facebook has applied for a patent on this idea by now and that will also add a wrinkle to how this plays out in the future.