Why No One Wants to Start Using Twitter

I'm currently reading a paper in which Jennifer Preece, a professor in the Information Systems Department at the University of Maryland, outlines three components of sociability to support social interaction online:


Since my life has been intertwined in what is now an eight month experiment with Twitter, I can't help but putting the community into the scope of these terms. I think it helps explain why Twitter is unpopular to start using. The basic communicated purpose of Twitter is very weak.

Watch this brief introduction video to Twitter:

What do you get out of that? Twitter is for telling people I'm going to get a gallon of milk. Twitter is for telling people I'm going out for coffee. Twitter is for telling people I'm watching a movie. So Twitter is just for status messages? The profiles are weak, the ability to find your friends is weak, and the communication is constrained and limited. So basically, it's Facebook without everything that is interesting. It's no wonder that the majority of people view Twitter along these lines:

So what is it that actually makes Twitter interesting? Why do people prefer it over Facebook or MySpace? A second paper by Preece may help shed some light. She says that "defining the community's purpose is important so that potential participants can immediately find out about the communities goals."

What's the problem with Twitter?- The purpose and goals of the community are wildly different from the purpose and goals defined by the basic definition of Twitter.

Here is what makes Twitter interesting for me:
  • Professional contacts.
  • A living, breathing, always-active recommendation system - whether that means a restaurant in Boston, the best shoes to buy, or interesting blog to read.
  • Group discussion and dialogue about trending events.
  • The ability to mobilize for social justice, local charities, or even just personal help.
  • The ability to draw like-minded (and not so like-minded) people together in the real world for real events.
  • For spreading news fast, accurately, and with multiple perspectives.
  • Viewing the personal face of corporations and businesses (@pandora_radio, @comcastcares, etc.)
I don't think my list is anywhere near unique, but not a single one of those reasons are on the Twitter website (that I know of). I had to slowly and gradually learn each and every one. To be honest, I never would have started using Twitter if it wasn't for an off-the-cuff decision to attend Social Media Camp Boston on an uneventful summer afternoon.

I'm never going to join a community where its purpose is to let people know I'm buying a gallon of milk down at Shaws. Maybe Twitter ought to stop pitching it that way.


Kevin Makice said...

I think Twitter is a good example of something that easier to experience than explain. Those kinds of criticisms are largely coming from people who haven't used the service or haven't used it well (i.e. website only, following celebrities but not locals, etc).

Twitter is a complex system and as such, it is not prescribed from above how to use it but from the aggregation of individual choices. The most important feature on Twitter is the unfollow. No matter how many blogs are written about the proper way to use Twitter or how large your network can become, every individual retains the power to control what they post and whose content they want to read.

I think it would be an interesting avenue to take that Preece paper and update it to fit the way online interactions have evolved, recognizing the strength of this kind of communication.

Evan said...

Agreed. While I don't think there is one way "prescribed from above how to use it" as you say, my frustration comes from the common perception that it is ONLY a "going to get milk" service.

It would probably be a bit of a stretch for Twitter to say that it is a service that encourages social justice. That isn't necessarily true. But at the same time, if I had known about movements like social media for social change, etc., the service would have been much more meaningful and interesting to me in the very beginning.

Kevin Makice said...

I wonder how much of Twitter is process. I recall my early days of use moving from "family only" to "a couple dozen friends" to "everyone local," etc. Each time, I felt I had the right size network, only to see it change. I'm in another transition state where I am likely to prune rather than grow. When/if I leave grad school, I'm not sure if my network on Twitter will grow or shrink to accommodate changes in life.

Discovery may be an importan part of the equation.

Promod said...

Great post. Great comments.

I certainly got the impression that Twitter was for inane updates from people with too much time on their hands. Novelty for the sake of novelty. I'm not dense, but I did not "get it". And what's Twitter's business model?

So I stayed away until a few weeks ago. I'm starting to see the value when the tweets are meaningful.

Evan said...

I felt the same way. In fact, I tried it a couple of times and didn't get very far. I just felt silly and pretentious.

I have to admit that I'm still unconvinced about the importance of discovering Twitter's charm for yourself. It's enjoyable and fun, but seems like an unnecessary roadblock.

Thanks for the comment!