Last night, as we were trying to cook dinner, I asked a lawyer friend why he wasn’t on Twitter.
He looked up from the laptop he was using as a cookbook with an expression that suggested I might as well have asked him why he hadn’t taken up shuffleboard.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I don’t have any particular desire to know what my friends had for lunch in eight words or less.”
I didn’t even bother to argue. I’ve done that too many times.
This week, the service announced it has 100 million active users – that is, users who log in on a regular basis, not the inflated (and frequently cited) number of users who have ever signed up. It’s a milestone. It’s not the 750 million-plus users that Facebook boasts, but it’s still an awful lot of people.
Yet as ubiquitous as a mention of Twitter has become, it hasn’t made the leap to actually being ubiquitously used. As much as we hear about it, only a distinct minority of people use it. Perhaps more to the point, it seems like a plurality of people continue to actively begrudge its existence as either a purveyor of inanities or an enemy of thoughtful discourse.
And in the year 2011, that’s kind of remarkable. Twitter has been in existence since 2006, and had become a real cultural force by late 2008. By 2009, it was being credited with a role in the Iranian uprising. By the 2010 World Cup final, people around the world were issuing 7,196 tweets per second, even if most of them were “GOALLLL.” By 2011, Twitter had become a dominant channel for politicians’ public messaging and private parts (paging A. Weiner), a vector for the Arab Spring uprisings, a scapegoat for the London riots, a fount of friendship, fandom and engagement for 100 million people.
And still, wherever the topic comes up, people think that Twitter is a place to find out what people had for lunch. Will it ever rise above this stigma to become a truly commonplace service? Or is Twitter destined to occupy a niche as addiction to few and irritant to many?
The curious thing about the lunch conundrum is that despite the fact that it’s more perception than reality, the company has been either unwilling or unable to shake it off. The truth about Twitter is that you never, ever have to read about someone’s lunch if you don’t want to. Unlike Facebook, where untold millions have been guilted into declaring friendship for childhood acquaintances they’d sooner jettison, on Twitter you follow only people you like. If someone is inane, annoying or unpleasant, out they go. As I’m fond of saying, Facebook is about people you used to know; Twitter is about people you’d like to know better.
Rather than having to mount, at regular intervals, a spirited defence of the technology, most Twitter users would rather point outsiders at the site and say “see for yourself!” Yet Twitter remains painfully obtuse to people who aren’t immersed in it. From the inside out, it’s a rollicking conversation with a hand-picked collection of interesting people. For the first-time visitor, it seems like random noise.
Twitter has done much better in some industries than it has in others. It seems to specialize in fields where influence is traded like a commodity. For instance, a public-relations professional is hardly a public-relations professional unless they have a Twitter account. Journalists, especially the younger ones, are increasingly enmeshed in the medium. Politicians have flocked to it. Arts professionals, musicians, writers, students, celebrities, people who fashion themselves as celebrities, and generically creative types are all a part of the mix. But Twitter has been slower to catch on across the general population.
The reason why might have nothing to do with lunch meat. A recent study from the Harvard Business Review turned up some unsurprising, yet telling statistics about the way the service works. Declaring (perhaps a bit broadly) that “nobody tweets,” the study found that 90 per cent of the content on Twitter comes from the top 10 per cent of users. In fact, the median number of tweets issued by all users is precisely one. The conclusion that many have drawn is that Twitter isn’t a social network at all, but a broadcasting network.
Twitter is a place where people go to talk and be heard, to sell and to promote, to influence and be influenced. It’s a medium where the oxygen gets taken up by people who, for better or for worse, have a lot to say, whether it’s about economics or pastrami on rye. Saying things about stuff is not everybody’s bag. And people who aren’t itching to say things about stuff are tiring of the suggestion that they really ought to be.
Growth is a goal for every business. But I’m not convinced that ubiquity is necessarily a good goal for Twitter as a medium. It’s a marketplace for ideas and commentary. That’s going to appeal to certain people and less to others. The fact that a medium is useful doesn’t give it a manifest destiny. Twitter’s fans – and I’m among them – should chew on that.
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