Above the Crowd

You Don’t Have to Tweet to Twitter

November 15, 2011:

Frequent comparisons to Facebook leave many confused about the true value of Twitter.

[Follow Me on Twitter]

“In a brand new direction
A change of perception
On a brand new trajection”

[Disclosure: Benchmark Capital is a major investor in Twitter, and my partner Peter Fenton sits on the Twitter BOD.]

Twitter is having a remarkable year. Active users have soared to over 100 million per month, with daily actives now above 50 million. Tweets per day are over 250 million. Most top actors, athletes, and artists are all active on Twitter. Every news and sports program proudly advertises its Twitter account handle. No one would consider running for public office without a strong Twitter presence. Global news in any region breaks first and spreads fast on Twitter. Even uber-socialist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has 2.24 million followers (which puts him slightly behind Mandy Moore, but just ahead of Queen Latifah).

So, Twitter’s traffic has been growing in leaps and bounds. It has become an indispensable tool for managing personal and corporate brands. And Twitter, along with its verb form “tweet”, have become words in everyday usage all over the world. Yet despite these impressive strides, Twitter’s upside is far, far greater and its user base will expand by an order of magnitude – as soon as the service can overcome a major perception problem.

Twitter suffers from two key misperceptions that need to be resolved before the business can reach its true potential. The first misperception is that Twitter is simply another social network, like Facebook. People commonly think of Twitter as a variant of Facebook. The press frequently positions the two together as “leaders in social networking.” This pairing erroneously implies that the two services are used for the exact same thing, even though the two platforms are very different. Facebook is a few-to-few communication network designed for sharing information and life events with friends. Twitter, on the other hand, is a one-to-many information broadcast network. The only way magic happens on Facebook is through reciprocity: I friend you and you friend me back – then information flows. But on Twitter, I can get something out of following Shaquile O’Neil who has no social obligation to follow me back.

As its roots are in communication, a key part of the Facebook value proposition is sharing information. Any potential anxiety with regards to Facebook sharing is reduced by the fact that these communications are generally seen only by one’s friends. In fact, users react quite negatively when this information is unknowingly shared more broadly. For the people who view Twitter as a Facebook variant, they immediately assume the platform’s core purpose is for the user to broadcast his or her own thoughts and personal information (like Facebook), but to a much broader public audience. For those with this perception, the notion of potentially exposing their own private thoughts to the broad public Internet is overwhelming and uninteresting.

The second, and more critical, Twitter misperception is that you need to tweet, to have something to say and broadcast, for the service to be meaningful to you. For many non-Twitter users, Twitter is an intimidating proposition. “Why would I tweet?,” and “…but I don’t want to tweet” are two common refrains from the non-adopter that highlight this key misperception. But this completely misses the point as to why Twitter has become such an amazingly powerful Internet destination for 100 million others. For the vast majority of Twitter’s next 900 million users, the core usage modality will have very little to do with “tweeting,” and everything to do with “listening” or “hearing.”

Twitter is an innovative and remarkable information service. While it is amazingly democratic and allows literally anyone to broadcast publicly as a “tweeter,” the core value in today’s Twitter is the amazing flow of curated and customized information that emanates from its crowd-sourced user feeds. Other Internet networks like to keep the user “inside.” Much like Google, Twitter points out to the world. It’s a “discovery engine” and an “information utility” rolled into one. With Twitter, you get news faster, you see updates from your favorite artists, you hear directly from key politicians, and gain insights from influencers in a wide variety of specializations. Just as Facebook is symmetric in terms of its poster-reader relationship, Twitter is highly asymmetric. The majority of the tweets on Twitter are posted by a small sub-set of the users. And the majority of the users get value from “reading” or “listening” to the tweets from these core influencers. Once again, for most users it’s more about what you hear, learn, and find than the fact that you can tweet.

In many ways, Twitter is much more of a competitor to other “discovery tools” and “information sources” than it is to Facebook. Facebook is unquestionably the number one resource for “sharing with the people in your life.” From this perspective, Facebook competes (extremely well) with email, instant messengers, and certainly other symmetric social networks like MySpace. Twitter, on the other hand, competes most directly with other tools that help you find important links, news, and information. It is in this broad, non-friend based crowd-sourcing and speed of discovery where Twitter truly shines. A recent Tweet by famed sci-fi author William Gibson highlights this point. Having become accustomed to the non-linear speed of information flow on Twitter, Gibson grew frustrated watching news of the Osama bin Laden killing on TV: “Network news feels like trying to suck cold tar through a milkshake straw.

Some who understand this point have suggested that Twitter is merely a “Better RSS reader.” While this analogy is directionally more accurate than the Facebook comparison, it greatly underestimates the power and value of Twitter. RSS feeds are simply computerized information “routers” that require complex setup, initialization, and maintenance. Twitter has three breakthroughs that make it dramatically more powerful than simple RSS. First and foremost, your personalized Twitter feed is human-curated by a potential universe of millions of curators. When you “check Twitter” you are looking at the specific articles and links purposefully chosen by people you have chosen to follow. That is powerful leverage. Second, it is easily extensible. Due primarily to the concept of “retweeting,” the simple act of using Twitter exposes you to new and interesting sources to follow. It evolves into a richer and more customized offering over time. You discover new people as well as new information. Lastly, Twitter’s unique handles and follower networks create a strong-form network effect that has high lock-in and high switching costs. Twitter and its top tweeters have a deeply symbiotic relationship.

So what can Twitter do to solve this misperception problem? The first thing they can fix is the new user registration flow, a process that has already begun. Earlier this year, a new user would be encouraged to “tweet” very early in the registration process, basically reinforcing the perception problem. Today’s “first 60-second” Twitter experience is quite different and revolves around choosing the influencers you will follow. You should expect even more evolution in this direction in the future. Next, Twitter must make it crystal clear to the press and prospective user that there is an amazingly powerful value proposition for non-broadcasting users. This will not be easy, as it requires a reprogramming of perception across a broad audience. Not only will this aid in incremental adoption, but it will also help subdue the confusion with respect to Facebook.

Twitter is on an amazing trajectory and will continue to increase in usage and influence.  However, the power of this discovery platform is much more about the tweets themselves, and not simply about every single user having the ability to tweet.

[Follow Me on Twitter]


  1. Ahsan November 15, 2011

    Great summary of Twitter’s value to tweeters and non-tweeters alike.

    Question: If the future experience is driving users toward following key influencers, will this reduce the (messy) democratic free-for-all that gives Twitter its current charm? Striking a balance between growth and utility seems to be the main challenge in the coming months.

    • bgurley November 15, 2011

      No — it can do both.

  2. Will O'Brien (@willobrien) November 15, 2011

    Great post Bill. Insightful as always.

    I was reminded of a post I wrote in March 2009 about the early potential of Twitter. http://willobrien.wordpress.com/2009/03/16/twitter-is-the-real-time-web-new-industries-will-be-built-on-twitter/

    Twitter has truly become the broadcast channel for brands and celebrities to share bite-sized messages with the rest of the world. Plus it has excelled as the real-time web and source for breaking news.

    To evolve to the next level, I think Twitter could embrace it’s role as a communication backbone. 140-character tweets are like electrical signals running over a phone line. When you attach a telephone to each end, you get a tweet. When you attach a fax machine, you get a photo. When you attach a modem, you get a network. Twitter could be the broadcast platform for brands and people, but so much more powerful than 140-character phrases and links….

  3. David November 15, 2011

    If you allow people to subscribe to you on Facebook, then your updates are public – just like on Twitter. If enabled, then Facebook is a broadcaster to whoever subscribes to you and you allow to see the stream.

    • bgurley November 15, 2011

      How’s that working? How many subscribers does SHAQ have on Facebook?

    • anonymous November 21, 2011

      Bill, Facebook only launched its subscribe button in mid-September, about two months ago. The jury is still out. Even Google+ can’t yet be ruled out entirely, either.

    • bgurley November 21, 2011

      That amazingly arbitrary email address makes me think you might work for one of those places!

  4. Christian  (@cgrassi) November 16, 2011

    Great writeup.
    But you should alteady noticed that FB is going to twitter model as well (many recent moves like you can now “subscribe” without been reciprocated). The second point for me is crystal clear, i personally use it to broadcast and also to have a better RSS source tool. I think the content vs. people make the real difference between twitter and facebook.

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  6. Bilventionaire November 16, 2011

    Wow. Your blog is insightful. Twitter’s appeal is non-generational and you don’t have to lose your personality engaging it. I use Twitter in such a different way than my teenage kids . They would expect it, they consider me to be eccentric. They cautioned me with social network rules – using a Facebook-type mentality from which the migrated. Twitter’s offerings – Followers, Following and Tweets – allowed me to ignore their social network rules. I set out to increase followers, scientifically, using none of social network rules that my kids applied. I have a chart tracking my moves and developing strategies. It’s fun. Bill Gurley is right, Twitter is a discovey tool and an information tool in one, I use both. Once signed in I feel that the world is at my finger tips and I’m going through information like crazy. I’m following Founders, CEO, CTO’s , investors, designer, coders , scientists, engineers, techies, corporations and eccentrics like me from around the world. Here’s the carrot for me…I have a voice, I can listen to others in dept or turn them off instantly and I get to do this on my own terms – without any requirement, time included. And it is more. Twitter allows for silent lasting approval in Followers and quiet but gentle rejection if they leave. By the way, I eclipsed my kids’ Followers in less than 30 days and now they listen a little better…for the moment. Bill, your insight is keen.

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  9. kidmercury (@kidmercury) November 16, 2011

    fb and twitter do compete in many ways — for instance, i have the option to login and comment via twitter or facebook.

    and of course, as david noted, you can follow people on twitter or facebook.

    twitter has a major infrastructure problem. this will become apparent in time, especially as the need to generate revenue becomes more paramount.

  10. Brian Nicholson November 16, 2011

    This is a great post. While your points seem obvious to me, there seems to be a general lack of understanding of Twitter’s utility as a listening platform and discovery engine among the masses – I always figured it was a PR problem soon to be addressed. As an investor, the potential of Twitter in disrupting normal browsing behavior makes me wary of any vertical media content plays – aggregation will make users more efficient in their consumption of media and less likely to spend time on ‘bookmarked’ sites.

  11. Scott November 16, 2011

    I’ve worked in the media/technology business for two decades and am baffled by Twitter’s reluctance to run with the notion that they are a platform as much as (if not more than) they are a social network. Only a tiny minority of tech/media elites use the platform as a two-way channel. Most of the world lurks. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It means huge audiences coalescing around specific verticals or channels. Think cable TV.

    People aren’t going to pay for the Twitter experience itself, but advertisers will pay to reach those specific channels. And the content is free for Twitter. Gotta love it when other people put in the time and effort to fill your channels for free. Very little thought or effort on Twitter’s part seems to go into creating and managing those channels, though. The Who to Follow page seems almost like an afterthought. That first sixty seconds you refer to should be about discovery within the Twitterverse as opposed to getting people to add to the din. They have the content. They just need to organize and present it better.

    What Twitter needs is some programming people.

  12. Colin Crowell (@colin_crowell) November 16, 2011

    How Twitter & Fbook are different…

  13. netgarden (@netgarden) November 16, 2011

    Great articulation, Bill, but to your point about Twitter’s role as a curated discovery environment, it’s confounding that their trending functions suck so bad.

    Why the company hasn’t embraced baking in some hybrid of techmeme and google news type of functionality as core to the service is beyond me.

    Sad to say, the ONLY time I am cognizant of what’s trending on Twitter is when Kim Kardashian’s getting divorced, which generated two separate trending items. Weak.

    And I say that as a fervent Tweeter.

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  15. Nancy McGough (@nm) November 16, 2011

    You wrote “your personalized Twitter feed is human-curated by a potential universe of millions of curators” but, unfortunately, my personalized Twitter feed is limited to ~2000 curators because I have only 633 followers and Twitter has follow limits (discussed at http://support.twitter.com/articles/66885). So one does have to tweet (or at least have lots of followers) to use Twitter as an internet-wide “discovery engine” and “information utility” rolled into one. My Twitter timeline and all my Twitter lists are maxed out :-(. I spend way too much time deciding who to unfollow so I can make space for someone I really want to follow. It reminds me of the days before Gmail when one had to delete email messages because of space limits. Space is cheap now and following in Twitter should be too. –Nancy

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  17. oneillprodsales November 16, 2011

    Not sure if this “day in the life” moment as a professinal spent doing some research recently proves the thesis..cue Beatles line,(P.McCartney’s line) and roll music…Fell out bed… Dragged a comb…

    Went into a dream….

    Was searching the web, looking for content to write about and recent start-up co’s (CEO’s) inHealthcare vertical and how I migght help them grow revenue (I am a business development consulant) while also trying (in the process) to broaden my own Blog posts by using this nascent social media tool (to me) Twitter and why I should engage it more at the behest of my web developer when I came across a Tweet to a Blog Post by a well a contributor to Tech Crunch (trusted and aggregated resource) which was exactly what I was looking for (and a list of ten other healthcare start-ups..perfect!) and then somehow I come across another Tweet to check out Bill Gurley (Benchmark Capital) and this splendid blog post by Bill Gurley..who I am now following. They will probably (never know me/Symmetrically speaking) never know me..but now I have Bil and David Chase to follow/curate and add to my/theAsymmetrical Universe…
    Cue Beatles Music…

    …Twiiter Dreams!!!!!

    Sean O’Neill
    Sales/Business Developer http://www.oneillprod.com and now Twitterized

  18. Matthew Moore November 16, 2011

    The fundamental problem I have with Twitter is exactly the thing that you’re praising. It is a terrible information discovery tool because of the user’s inability to direct what information they discover much more than opening their ear to a particular person. If we performed research the same way we turn to Twitter for up-to-the-minute information, we’d pick our favorite fifty reference books, feed them into a chipper-shredder, and try to catch as many words as are blown out the other end.

    Twitter is an amazing tool for those who want to disseminate information. It is simple and far reaching. It’s like having a mailing list for sales, a constantly evolving FAQ, and a customer service response tool all wrapped up in one. For companies and self-promoters, it is a no-brainer. Also, those who invest heavily in managing it may be able to justify their time thanks to the tidbits of fresh information they’re able to pluck out, but this is only with very careful management of follow lists and filters and trending and special clients. (Number of my friends who use Twitter everyday: ~20. Number of them who I know use special clients: ~15.)

    For the rest of us, it is an unwieldy firehose of nonsense. Originally, one major issue was that you would see all of the replies made by an account, regardless of who they were to, cluttering up your feed with what was essentially one half of an instant message chat. This has now been “fixed” by automatically filtering replies unless you are a follower of both people involved. Unfortunately, the more people you follow, particularly if they are friends, the more likely this situation is to recur. Additionally, the people broadcasting these tweets don’t recognize when they should be replying to an individual (hiding it from most of their followers) and when that information would be useful to their entire flock. You could argue that this is an issue with the way people use Twitter and not the service itself, but I believe it’s a flaw with the tool. Beyond that, there are few ways to cull the important details from the stream beyond using alternate clients, careful filters, or removing a followed account entirely. Facebook at least has the decency to allow its users to hide certain apps from their feeds, but if someone I want to continue following on Twitter starts incessantly tweeting their Foursquare locations, there is no easy, first-party solution.

    Finally, that Twitter is a hand-curated feed of information is a powerful point, but I think you emphasize the hand-curated more than the feed, and that is the distinction between our arguments. You find Twitter a useful way to filter the content of the internet because it is selectively fed to you by people you’ve chosen. I find Twitter a useless way to discover the internet because I have such little control over the content fed to me; choosing people is not enough. I would rather cobble together my information by browsing through more discrete—but still hand-curated—channels, like sub-Reddits, than stand in the river of tweets and hope I see something I like.

    • bgurley November 17, 2011

      I obviously disagree. For me, and many others I know, it is our clear “first stop” for new information.

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  20. Liza Bernstein (@itsthebunk) November 16, 2011

    Thanks for your insight and this great analysis!

    I agree and would add these thoughts:

    Twitter is also a platform that enables true dialogue and sharing of expertise, both structured (tweet chats), and unstructured (spontaneous conversations).

    For example, the #hcsm chat (Health Care Social Media) brings together, once a week, a range of international healthcare stakeholders and influencers including doctors, patients, researchers and communicators to discuss innovation in health care. It works for lurkers who read/listen and maybe retweet as well as those who engage more deeply. These chats often lead to spontaneous dialogue between participants, and all of this provides a great way to “network”–when networking means sharing and building genuine relationships.

    In some ways, it is indeed a one-to-many system, but unlike the Old Media broadcast model, Twitter enables meaningful and rapid one-to-one loops too–and in this lies much of its power and fun-factor.

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  23. Marshall McLuhan November 17, 2011

    Bill, this has got to be a low for you. Your posts and writings are amongst the best of the best. This on the other hand is a substance-free, shameless plug for a portfolio company.

    Get back.
    Get back.
    Get back to where you once belonged.
    — The Beatles

    • bgurley November 17, 2011

      Glad to post your comments, but I disagree. You can argue I talk my book, but I would suggest the opposite is true. We put our money where our mouth is. Even if you were correct (which your not), it wouldn’t be my lowest low. 🙂

  24. connectme360 November 17, 2011

    Twitter is the cue tone, reinvented for a connected world. Cue tones are inaudible signals used to trigger local advertising in TV transmissions from CBS, ABC, etc. I’d argue cue tones directly enabled the growth of the modern broadcast TV industry: without them, there would be no local advertising, no need for local affiliates, and therefore no market for cable or satellite TV.

    Twitter enables both explicit and implicit signaling between groups and individuals, enabling sophisticated forms of coordination to take place.

    This action takes place instantly, between parties that have never met each other before nor have any kind of formal agreement governing their roles. Like the cue tone before it, Twitter can help organizations unlock the value of their relationships: not just as raw head count, but the sum of the experience, capabilities, and insight owned by their employees, partners and customers, on demand.


  25. Charlie Howard November 18, 2011

    Bill, I liked this, but I think you overstate the point. I wrote up some thoughts in response… http://www.fishburn-hedges.co.uk/news/articles/twitter-%E2%80%93-don%E2%80%99t-forget-social

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  29. Mike Patterson November 19, 2011

    Agree with all of your points here and agree with Twitter’s challenges in tackling these misconceptions but think they are on the way. I made some of these suggestions nearly a year ago and they are beginning to be adopted by Twitter including growing their distribution through acquisitions.

    Twitter IS an information source and should continue to skew their business and USP to relay this to the end user INCLUDING making it easier and easier for users to “follow” things, people, businesses via mobile devices.

    Here was my take close to a year ago:

    Thanks for the POV and look forward to reading more,

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  31. Barry Ford November 19, 2011

    You present Twitter here in a whole new light. Great analysis. I just started ‘tweeting’ a couple weeks ago, and ‘google plussing’ a few days ago. I am still learning the nuances of each, and discovering the variances between them and Facebook. And, trying to figure how I will find the time to do any of them.

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  41. Tom January 1, 2012

    I loved the article you just wrote on twitter. A lot of people still don’t understand how powerful it is. I have several twitter accounts. My largest one pulls in a strong flow of traffic onto my main website.

    Stock tips can be thrown out in an instant.

    There’s so much that can be done with twitter.

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