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.

3 Other Comments


Vince Giorgi August 22, 2009 at 11:36 am

Hey, Dan, you’ve stirred up some great discussion here. And before I forget, where can I get some of that “guaranteed to engage content” marcy d. is referencing? I’d like to bottle that stuff…

I keep wondering — and I’ve got a post on this over at Touch Point City, http://www.bit.ly/1Srv53, quoting new findings from Nucleus Research re: Facebook’s impact on office productivity — how social media is going to gain widespread acceptance as a business tool if employees can’t demonstrate to supervisors, executives and owners that time they spend on Facebook, Twitter, et al, during work hours is time well spent on the company’s behalf.

Granted, those whose business cards say “marketing,” “corporate communications,” etc., might more easily be able to justify spending work time on social media. But for the vast majority of workers — including the decision makers most marketers are trying to reach — early indications are that this could be a tough sell.

What’s your take?

Dan Hutson August 24, 2009 at 9:35 am

Great question. If you subscribe to the idea that marketing is everyone’s job (and I do), then the issue isn’t whether or not non-marketers should be spending time on social media, it’s where can they most effectively contribute through social media. As social media gains greater acceptance, I hope the focus will shift there. Sure, people spending time on Facebook or Twitter without purpose or an understanding of how their involvement can help achieve marketing goals is time wasted, but that’s true of any communication tool.

Raghu Nath August 4, 2009 at 8:48 pm

I am sure the creators of Twitter know how to prevent, control and manage spam. They are just letting it unfettered because they want to promote its popularity. At an appropriate time, they will pull the plugs and bring things into order (including allowing spam users).
Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool – something that people will soon find they can’t live without – be it for business, entertainment or personal communication.
Already my Linked In usage has come down. It is so difficult to “engage another in a conversation here” compared to Twitter!

marcy d. August 3, 2009 at 8:47 am

It’s not about the platform (Twitter), it’s about the Content.

What we’re waiting to see is whether clever and creative people start figuring out how to use the platform for engaging End User experiences.

Don’t blame the messenger service, blame the people who write the message.

The advertising world created commercial television. The advertising world by not merging “interactive” with “broadcast” killed off the prospect of “internet television. So, with TWITTER, agencies and brands have a new platform they can either figure out how to use well and encourage a hybrid commercial and user generated space (chaotic, but, works) or, they will sit back and let another potentially successful platform die. TWITTER will succeed if a combination of professional (guaranteed to engage) and User Generated content (conversations) reside in the space, and, if Brands learn to create new “conversational” experiences that add value to the User.

But, end of the day, it must cease being about Twitter and needs to be about the content that flows through it.

Dan Hutson August 3, 2009 at 8:52 am

Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Let’s hope marketers everywhere see the light.

Dan Hutson August 1, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Thanks, Matches. That’s certainly cryptic. I am using Twitter primarily for professional reasons, that’s true, so I tend to approach it from that perspective. Thanks for the reminder that others are just having fun with it. By the way, I’m having fun, too.

Matches Malone August 1, 2009 at 5:23 am

As part of The Experiment, I’m going to see how many different ways I can respond to this and basically say the same thing, simply because it doesn’t seem like you’re having fun with Twitter, and you see it as work. If that’s what you believe, then your comments above are certainly valid.

However, some of what you say is indeed not the case, simply because what you’re using Twitter for may not be what others are using it for. It’s the biggest demonstration of The Law!!! to date….

Lou Bank July 31, 2009 at 7:28 am

Even by your numbers, significantly more people are Tweeting than have Swine Flu–and the only reason that’s lost position in the media is because H1N1 isn’t nearly as sexy a name.

It’s not so much how many are Tweeting as who is Tweeting. No doubt there’s a flood of Twits–but there wouldn’t be so much Twitter press if key influencers weren’t using it.

Dan Hutson July 31, 2009 at 9:27 am

I agree, Lou. A great number of smart, influential people are on Twitter. And many others aren’t. Time will tell if this thing has legs or if it finds itself replaced by the next brilliant idea. I love it for the social engagement opportunities, less so for the fact that it puts a megaphone in the hands of a lot of idiots.

Now if we renamed it Miss Piggy’s Flu …

Bob Simon July 31, 2009 at 7:22 am

Dan: All good points. You’ve encouraged me to be even more vigilant in who I follow and who I allow in my stream. If the overall numbers are relatively small, perhaps that’s a positive, in that you have a better chance at an Internet presence. I still think it has the potential to be a powerful B2B tool, especially at this time when most folks are trying anything to help and be helped. Bob

Dan Hutson July 31, 2009 at 9:30 am

Thanks, Bob. I think if we keep focused on Twitter as a relationship-building and engagement tool rather than just another broadcasting device, we’ll realize its true potential. People who use it as an opportunity to advertise are just short-shortsighted.

Martin Kaufmann July 31, 2009 at 1:38 am

I add my comment here, too, which I gave originally on LinkedIn.

I look at Twitter as a startup with huge potential, like Google or Facebook were a few years ago. Personally I use Twitter as a marketing channel to bring people to my website and blog. Some make direct money of this by generating enough traffic to their blogs to be attractive for AdSense to place ads. Others are looking for jobs and find offerings, or they can attract recruiters to their CV / LinkedIn / Xing / Viadeo / Hi5 webpage. Still others get user feedback and support requests (like Dell). Or they distribute coupons, ‘secret passwords’, promotions like Starbucks and generate massive physical traffic to their outlets. Some use it to attract people to their Craigslist ad extending reach. CNN and many other media bring traffic to their websites and news channels. The British and Swiss Government use it to distribute information about events, politics and legislation. Churches distribute bible verses. etc. etc. So there are many faces and uses of Twitter.

You can’t really say that users are only interesting if they’re active. It is the normal business model for broadcasters to have passive users and still they make money out of the business model (news or entertainment against suffering commercials). Similar for ‘gurus’ and celebrities who give some little stuff or nice words to their fans. The user activity lies in consuming the information, just like reading a newspaper. Listening to the global chat. And sometimes this becomes very active like during the Iran elections, where even the White House asked Twitter not to interrupt the service, as it gave voice to the Iranian opposition (and channels to CIA and NSA, probably).

Is no one ‘using’ (what do you mean by ‘using’) it? Have a look at Alexa stats: yesterday 3.45% of Internet visitors (most from US) used Twitter (Google: 34.35%; MSN: 11.69% sinking; Facebook: 21.93%; AOL: 2.34%). With this Twitter is on rank 15 of the top sites accoring to Alexa. Not bad. No one??

‘Using’ for evil? NO. Most ‘users’ are listeners, spectators, consumers. Personally I’ve found huge value and insights from using Twitter. I found stuff and made connections with interesting people I didn’t know about 5 months ago, and I’m a rather senior guy.

Numbers lie? You trust Nielsen? Have a look here http://en-us.nielsen.com/main/news/news_releases/2009/june/time_on_facebook . 3712 pc year on year growth in the top 10 social networking and blog sites list.

And just think of the combination potential if Twitter did join forces with Amazon, Goole, CNN, Facebook or whatever. Does Twitter as a company have a value? Yes? Well, the founders already founded Blogger and sold it to Google. Why would anyone want to buy it? Think.

Ok, nuf 4 now. Sure, I do agree with some of what you say, BUT, I’d advise not to underestimate the power of Twitter. I think it will become or already is a major force on the web. And the potential is by far not exploited. Creative firms and users have found and will find ways to build new businesses, marketing approaches, distribution models based on Twitter.

What do you think?

Dan Hutson July 31, 2009 at 9:38 am

Thanks Martin. I appreciate your thoughtful response. Obviously I’m being more than a little facetious when I say no one’s on Twitter and people are using it for nefarious purposes, but I wanted to remind people to keep this thing in the proper context. We’re still at the very early stages of Twitter adoption, there is no clear road map for its effective use, we’re all still experimenting. There are a lot of people out there mucking things up just as they do in other media. It’s like when we built these amazing transportation vehicles called “cars” and someone decided the Hummer was a good idea. A little silly, but you get my point.

I will challenge you on one point, though. You seem to view Twitter primarily as a broadcasting medium. If that’s the case, I can screen you out just as I do now with other forms of advertising. But if you use it to engage me, build a relationship, address my business needs through an ongoing conversation, well, for me that’s where the true power lies.

Dan Hutson July 30, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Tim – I think that’s a healthy attitude to take. It’s easy to make this a number game when it’s supposed to be a relationship-building and engagement tool. As you say, anything else is mass media masquerading as social media.

Tim Hmelar July 30, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Dan -

I have used twitter during our start up stage to gather information on influencers in our market. My take on number of followers and how many people one is following as useless info. The key for our business is communicating with people who actually gain from communicating with us, or help us grow our business. I look at the followers in a similar fashion to visitors to a website. It doesn’t matter how many visitors hit a website unless they receive value or make a purchase.

I think the mentality of following many people and having many followers just for the numbers is a potentially dangerous idea. I have found people on twitter who appear to be credible and of value only to have my opinion changed when I see they are following someone who uses Britney Spears in a pornographic photo.

To Follow or not to Follow that is the question in Palo Alto, CA.


Stephen July 30, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Dan, thanks for the thought provoking post. Indeed, Twitter is in serious ‘Fad’ mode, and whether it ends up being a real game changer is yet to be seen. As you’ve said, there are more non-users than users, but that alone doesn’t make it a waste of time. In fact, when used properly and with a goal in mind it can drive tremendous traffic. While the goal of ‘engaging others’ is stated by many, it is difficult to ‘be real about it’ when your follower list grows quite large like the many celebrities you mention. At that point, twitter followers become nothing more than voyeurs. And, sadly, aggressive MLMers and porn bots have muddied the waters quite a bit.

But with time and care we believe a user can cultivate a targeted following that is interested in what you have to say and will engage, in a real way, with you and your offerings. For us it simply took getting off of the wheel and heading in a purposeful direction.

Dan Hutson July 30, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Thanks Stephen. I agree, cultivation is the key. Like anything else, the use of Twitter as an effective communications channel requires strategic thinking and careful execution to ensure that you stay on point. I know I continue to grapple with the question of what I want to achieve through my own involvement.

Dan Hutson July 30, 2009 at 9:32 am

Thanks John, glad you enjoyed it. You and your business are a perfect example what I’m talking about. Until this becomes as simple and as effective as traditional small business marketing strategies, it’s just not worth the time investment for most people.

My business is communications and marketing, so it makes sense for me to be on Twitter. But for those who wear many hats other than the marketing one, it’s often not the best use of limited time and resources. I wish it weren’t so, because I see huge potential value. We’re just not quite there yet.

John Biever July 30, 2009 at 9:22 am

Great info. Unfortunately, after using Twitter for over three months, I still feel like a fish out of water. I keep logging in daily with the hopes that someday it will all make sense. I like your entries—your humor is right up my alley.

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