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”
UB40

[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]

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