Twitter misconceptions

In spite of its ubiquity, Twitter seems to be one of the more misunderstand social media platforms out there. Even though I’m not a typical Twitter advocate, I’m a big believer in its value – particularly in terms of its use for professional purposes. I think everyone should have a Twitter account, just like they have a phone number and an email address. It should be one of the main channels of Digital Era communication.

But that’s not likely to happen as long as people continue to view the platform through a distorted lens. In my experience, there are four key Twitter misconceptions that seem to be keeping later adopters in particular from opening an account, exploring the possibilities, and giving Twitter a fair shot to demonstrate its value. These misconceptions stem from emotional reactions, misunderstandings, and false assumptions.

Twitter “Abuses” Indicate Fundamental Problems with the PlatformI regularly read comments from and interact with people who don’t “get” Twitter at all. They think it is a ridiculous waste of energy and that the people who use it are vapid, shallow, silly, immature, narcissistic, unprofessional egomaniacs with too much time on their hands and not enough “real” work to do. And they often highlight the salacious and outrageous Twitter blunders and faux pas to to help prove their point.

Haters gotta hate. But they’re not necessarily wrong – their criticism is just misdirected. Every communication channel – including face-to-face – can be characterized by exchanges that are “vapid, shallow, silly, immature, narcissistic, and egomaniacal.” It’s part of human nature. We can’t all be serious and erudite all the time. In fact, more often than not we’re neither. But just as we wouldn’t think to blame pen and paper or the phone for the ridiculous things people say, the crazy conversations they have, and the wild ways they put their feet in their mouths, we can’t blame Twitter for trivial and terrible tweets.

Could Twitter become less noisy and shallow? Sure. Should it? That would probably be nice, especially given that it’s basically a public venue. But does it really matter? No. Why? Because each of us has the ability to leverage Twitter and create a user experience that has value to us. If we don’t want to listen to or engage in the vapid, we don’t have to. Just like we don’t have to watch junk TV or read trashy novels or listen to pop music or engage in chitchat with family, friends and strangers…

Twitter is a buffet table, and each of us has the ability to create our own “digital diet.”

Twitter is Primarily a Social Network. In spite of its apparent new emphasis on connecting with others (more on that here), Twitter’s greater value comes from its role as an information network. In fact, one of the earliest tipping points for the use of Twitter (and the hashtag) was in 2007, when @nateritter shared updates about wild fires in California using the hashtag #sandiegofire (sample stories here and here). Since then, of course, Twitter has played a major role in many news stories, from the salacious (e.g., Tiger Woods being outed as a philanderer) to the serious (e.g., the Haiti earthquake, the tsunami in Japan, the killing of Osama Bin Laden) to the sublime (e.g., the “Miracle on the Hudson”).

Although Twitter may be shifting to a greater emphasis on the social aspects of the platform, and many users – especially early adopters – consider it a social network, it doesn’t have to be used that way. One of the key factors that differentiates Twitter from platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Google+ is that you don’t have to create a personal network to derive value from the channel and its contents.

All Twitter Users Must Tweet. As with many other social media platforms, there’s a somewhat tyrannical assumption that “talking” is the only form of engagement. But honestly, if everyone is talking, who’s listening?  Listening is a powerful form of engagement and should not be undervalued. Twitter offers fantastic opportunities to listen efficiently and effectively. In spite of Twitter’s recent shift toward more sharing (more on that here), it’s still perfectly appropriate to open a Twitter account simply for the purpose of gathering news and information. You never have to send a single tweet.

According to these recent Twitter statistics, 40% of Twitter users “don’t tweet but watch other people tweet.” I expect that when you factor in tweeting regularity, the percentage of active Tweeters is much lower.

Twitter Engagement is the Only Way to Measure Success. A related notion is that individuals and organizations who actively tweet should (only) measure their success in terms of click throughs, responses, and RTs (retweets), which are measures of engagement. But…

  • Social media measurement is an inexact science at best, and there are no existing tools that can capture all of the digital activity related to a specific tweet in a reliable fashion. For example, if someone follows a link to an article or blog post in a tweet then reshares it via his/her own Twitter account or another channel, that subsequent activity isn’t directly connected to the original tweet. As both a content curator and creator, I see this all the time.
  • The fact that someone doesn’t reshare an item doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable or effective, especially if that person’s main purpose for being on Twitter is to listen.

Determining whether and how people engage with content shared via Twitter is a huge challenge. And unless you’re a celebrity or a big brand, it’s unlikely you’ll see compelling statistics to support your engagement. But the lack of clear metrics doesn’t mean the platform doesn’t have value.

Your Thoughts?

Are there any other Twitter misconceptions you would add to this list? What other factors may be preventing more people from taking advantage of what Twitter has to offer as a communication channel? I’d love to hear other people’s perspectives on the challenges rookie Twitter users in particular have to face.