Time for a Twitter Reality Check

by Dan Hutson on July 30, 2009


photo by mel b.

Twitter is the tool I hate to love. When I first became aware of it in 2007, I thought it was ridiculous. Now I’m in the Twitter gerbil wheel, tweeting and following and searching for the right people to follow and blocking people and unfollowing people and on and on.

It’s hot. It’s sexy. Someday soon someone will spend buku bucks to buy the thing and it’ll be bigger than ever. Or the Google Wave tsunami will drown it. Heck if I know.

What I do know is this:

No one’s using it. And by no one I mean most of the world’s population. Twitter won’t make public how many users it has, but various semi-informed guesses put the number anywhere from 5 to 10 million. To put that in perspective, the current U.S. population is around 305 million and the world population is north of 6.7 billion. Even the 10 million divided by 6.7 billion is a whole lot of zeroes to the right of the decimal point.

Most of those using it aren’t using it. Join me in the wheel and it feels like the Twitterverse is busy, fast and furious. But 5 percent of Twitter users account for three-quarters of the activity, according to a recent study by Sysomos, a social analytics company. And 21 percent of users have never even posted a tweet.

And all the ballyhoo about celebrity users and their Twitter activity? Please. Sure, Ashton Kutcher tweets his 2.9 million followers like a fiend, but there’s nothing in that stream of any interest to me. Oprah Winfrey has tweeted a grand total of 56 times since signing up in April. I’m sure her 2 million followers are waiting breathlessly to see what the 57th tweet will be. Britney Spears and her people have managed just twice that number of tweets to her 2.5 million followers.

Most of those using it aren’t followed by anyone using it. This is really sad: 93.6 percent of users have less than 100 followers, and 92.4 percent of users are following less than 100 people. If you’re a taco truck or coffeehouse NOT located in New York or Los Angeles (where you’ll find the most Twitter users, a real shocker) or some other big city, good luck convincing those 17 people in your area who are on Twitter to come check out your business. (Maybe that Yellow Pages ad isn’t completely useless after all.)

Most of those who ARE using it are using it for evil. OK, not most. But many. All the creeps and scam artists who used to try to cheat you out of your money on the phone or through direct mail have graduated to Twitter. When you read “Get 1,000s of Followers!” think “Make Money Stuffing Envelopes!” or “Where Shall We Send Your Sweepstakes Winnings?”

The numbers lie. When Nielsen says that American Idol pulls in 20 million viewers a week, I know what that number represents. When Verified Audit Circulations tells me that the Wall Street Journal has 2 million subscribers, I understand that, too. But when you tell me you’ve got 20,000 followers, that number has no credibility with me.

Take a stroll through the follower lists of the most respected professionals on Twitter who have big numbers and I’ll bet you find hundreds or even thousands of computer-generated porn bots, MLM hawkers, social media “gurus” trying to sell theirĀ  e-books or other “make big bucks FAST” schemers.

That’s not a network, that’s an untargeted junk mail list.

(Here’s a tip: Viagra Headley and Delight Ouellette aren’t real people. Neither is NikiL09238. She and her sister NikiL09433 tried following me but I blocked them. Great names for porn stars, though.)

If you’re foolish enough to follow back some of these idiots, your stream quickly fills up with sewage.

I could write a lengthy post just on the fact that so many Twitter users treat it like every other mass media outlet, using false engagement to mask blatant promotion, but I’ll save that for another day.

Sorry if I sound a little crabby, but it’s frustrating to watch what could be an incredibly powerful communication and social engagement tool degenerate the way it has. Unfortunately I think it will get worse before it gets better. As more people flood the Twitterverse (trends suggest it’s coming), we’ll have to wade through more useless garbage to find real people of value to connect with.