What You Don't Get About Why You Don't Get Twitter

You’re not on Twitter. You don’t “get” Twitter. Chronicling your life in 140-character “tweets”? Nobody cares, which you realized right around the time you deleted your Xanga. If this is you, keep reading. Even though my article is targeted at Twitter skeptics, my goal is not to try to convince every person out there to get on Twitter. Rather, I’ll briefly summarize how Twitter works and why it’s important, so that even if you aren’t a Twitter power user or use the noun “tweeple,” you can still get a gist of what’s going on in those 140-character bits of text, hashtags, replies, mentions, DMs, geotags, and TwitPics.

An eye-opening moment for me came during serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk’s (@garyvee) talk at the Athenaeum in April. He asked how many members of the audience knew what Twitter was. Since it was mostly young CMC wannabe entrepreneurs, pretty much every hand went up. Then he asked how many of those people actually had a Twitter account, and only 40% of of the hands remained up. Next he asked who used Twitter every day and it was pretty much down to Kevin Burke (@nivekekrub) and myself. Which roughly stacks up against the data, according to a study by eMarketer.

Only 11% of Americans are on Twitter, while about half are on Facebook. And of those 30-40 million people, only 21% are active users. So there’s the first misconception about Twitter--especially for old school business executives trying to “understand the youth generation”. They think everyone is on Twitter when, simply put, they’re not.

Second misconception: Twitter is trying to compete with Facebook. It’s a different animal entirely. Here’s one way to understand it: Twitter is a concert. Facebook is a bar. They’re kind of similar, in that they’re both very social environments. At a bar, you talk to people, have a few beers, upload some photos, and poke someone. The value is based on your interaction with people you know and are close to. At a concert, you rub shoulders, talk to those around you, but you’re mostly there to listen to the band. You don’t go to a concert to talk to your friends. It’s a community atmosphere, but the value is more in the connection you make with the band (read: the people you follow on Twitter). I’m not on Twitter just to listen to @Mr_Right207, @kelseykbrown, or even @CarlPeaslee. (Although @jpitney is worth your time.) The real reason I’m checking my Twitter feed is to get updates from @CoryBooker, @google, or @NickKristof. The people that I’m not Facebook friends with are the ones that I care about on Twitter (an econ kid would call these “complementary goods”).

Here is a quick overview of how Twitter works if you’re new to the game. You have your homepage with a “timeline.” You “follow” other users, whose tweets appear in reverse chronological order, with the newest on top, in your timeline. When you tweet (in 140 characters or less) your tweets appear in the timelines of people that follow you. People use “hashtags” (e.g. #osama, #hangover2, #robotpickuplines) to organize tweets. You can click on a hashtag and instantly see every tweet worldwide with that tag.

 

So why is Twitter valuable to the average person?

Answer A: it’s essentially a curated source of news. It’s my best source for my specific interests. I care a lot about maps and geography and local politics (weird, I know) so my Twitter feed is populated by people who are constantly posting links related to my interests. I follow @SimpleGeo, @pwire, and @IdeaGov because their thoughts and links match my unique interests.  There’s no website where I can go and get that exact same combination.  Likewise, I tend to tweet about these topics, so I’ve built up a number of followers who (hopefully) follow me because I have something interesting to contribute from time to time.

 

Sure, I laugh at the occasional tweet from @jessekblum, but I get more value out of following @CapitolAlert (Sacramento Bee California politics news). Here are some accounts that I recommend following as generally valuable to anyone: @BillGates (he does cool stuff), @CoryBooker (the best mayor in America and probably the most active Twitter user as well), @thedailybeast (great general news) and of course, our beloved @cmcforum.

Answer B: entertainment. There are some fantastically funny people on Twitter. While Kelsey Brown was writing this article about how to occupy yourself during your internship last summer, I was following @BPGlobalPR’s hilarious satire of BP’s cleanup efforts during the oil spill. Sample tweet: “If you fall off your horse, get back on. If your horse explodes and leaks oil everywhere, try to sell that oil. #bpcares” (July 9). During Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral campaign in Chicago this winter, @MayorEmanuel took the city by storm with his profane, satirical account of the election. The guy behind that account is now publishing all of the tweets in a book.  A sprinkle of entertainment is what makes Twitter fun. I also recommend @StephenAtHome (Stephen Colbert) and @TheOnion.

Answer C: instant commentary on breaking news. When Osama bin Laden was killed, the first news came via Keith Urbahn, the former chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld. Twenty minutes before anything was said on CNN, millions of people were already buzzing about it on Twitter. The night of the announcement, there was an average of 3,500 tweets per second--a record. This peaked at slightly over 5,100 tweets per second just before Obama went on TV. By offering a global forum to quickly disseminate and discuss news, well before official news outlets can broadcast it, Twitter can be immensely useful. Especially in a disaster situation, when electricity and landline phones are knocked out, sending tweets from smartphones can be the fastest way to get information out. An amazing tool called Ushahidi is working on doing exactly that.

Answer D: @CharlieSheen. Enough said. Here’s how he responded to the bin Laden news.

Are you lost in the world without a Twitter account? No. But hopefully after reading this, you’re a little more aware of how Twitter works and why a couple hundred million people are on it. Whatever you do, just don’t let @aplusk (Ashton Kutcher) get any more followers.

Don't forget to follow @cmcforum to be the first to read breaking news, the newest articles and the biggest announcements.

Shameless self promotion: @d_meyer.