When I first signed up for Twitter on April 25th, 2007 I was curious what it what all about. I had been reading a lot about Twitter on blogs followed through its usage at the SXSW conference in Austin when it really “blew up” (and as you can see here – not everybody thought it would be an overnight success). I sent invites to a number of my colleagues at Salesforce.com (where I worked at the time) and the response by one of the colleagues I respect the most was, “Twitter? What are you, 13?” I sent out the obligatory messages on Twitter but never heard much back from the people I Tweeted to. It felt a bit like owning a fax machine when nobody else you knew had one.
So now that Twitter is starting to gain mass adoption many of you know about all of the benefits (but there are some drawbacks even some experienced users weren’t aware of). So many of my friends & family are new to Twitter and always make the first observation, “I don’t get it”. So I thought I’d write a few observations about Twitter as it stands in July 2009 (more comments another day).
1. Twitter is asymmetric – what does that mean? Up until now in social networks all of our relationships were bilateral. You friended me (or vice versa) and I decided if we wanted a mutual relationship. Before Twitter I thought this was normal. I had a rule on my social networks. If I didn’t know somebody personally I just didn’t accept the request. It was nothing personal, just that in my view I had to at least have met the person somewhere to be connected. I didn’t want people in LinkedIn asking me for intros to people I didn’t really know. On Facebook I post personal information that isn’t too sensitive but is more than I would share with people I don’t know. If you want to read a deeper analysis on the issue see here by Tim O’Reilly (note that Goodreads changed their model from “friending” to “following” as a result of this post).
I think asymmetric following is a big breakthrough because it enables you to follow people who might add very interesting commentary that you can learn from or link to and they don’t feel obliged to follow you if they don’t know you. Examples of people I follow who I don’t even know include Mitch Kapor (founder of Lotus and a guy I’ve respected for years), Paul Kedrosky who is an awesome writer on economic topics and VC/PE – his blog is here, andKara Swisher, who writes for the must read website All Things D and whose acerbig humor I love reading. I don’t know any of these people personally and none of them follow me. Yet I enjoy reading their posts.
2. Asymmetric has problems – some not obvious to the user. I don’t follow too many people. As of now it’s 235 people. The reason is that I really want to read the stuff that comes in from the people that I care about without it “getting lost in the sauce”. I know I could segment my traffic a bit on TweetDeck or similar apps but generally I believe the more people you follow the more posts that get missed. Of my 235 I’m guessing only about 125 post regularly. But here is the problem: I have a friend that I’ve met at a few conferences and met for breakfast named Alexia Tsotsis who is journalist at LA Weekly and is really sweet. Back when I was following about 100 people she had 400 people she followed and 2,400 that followed her. So she is used to having tons of “noise” in her feed and she has posted 2,500 updates – so sometimes she “speaks” a lot.
Some mornings I’d check Twitter and I’d have 8 posts from Alexia. I didn’t follow many people so her regular Tweets filled my whole stream. Over cocktails one night I told her I knew everything about what she had been doing over the past couple of months. She forgot the asymmetric rule works in reverse. Because I don’t follow a lot of people if they speak often, I hear all. Other people have commented to me that I Tweet a lot. I actually don’t think I do (851 updates to date) but if you only follow 25 or 50 people I could see how I would seem chatty.
3. Asymmetric has problems (continued) – Another problem I note is that some people have too many followers. In the early days of Twitter when somebody followed a prominent person he / she probably quickly looked to see if he knew the person and if he did he followed the person back. (see stat 4 for proof here) But now that these prominent people have tons of followers they probably don’t always look to see who is now following them. There is no easy way of saying, “which of my friends am I not following?” so the later you join Twitter the harder it is to get more prominent or popular people to follow you. This is a bummer because you want to be part of their conversation and direct message them (which you can’t do if they don’t follow you) but they’re probably not aware they’re not following you (or they are secretly avoiding you (me) ;-) And it’s a bit awkward to email somebody and say, “I noticed you’re not following me.”
4. The problem of the “over follower” – some people have a policy to either “auto follow” everyone that follows them or have a strategy to follow lots of people to get people following them back. Frankly I don’t understand this. What I love about Twitter is reading the posts from friends, colleagues, people I admire and news sources like TechCrunch, VentureBeat and Silicon Alley Insider. If you follow too many people you’re probably sub-optimizing the benefits you could get from following a more concentrated group of people. Note that the founder of Twitter, Evan Williams, has 1 million followers and he follows 887 people (and I think he only increased this when he got critisized publicly for not following enough people).
5. Finding people sucks. Twitter needs to fix this. First, if you want to find my friend Francisco Dao and know that his Twitter handle is “TheMan”? Try typing “theman” into Find People on Twitter. He doesn’t even come up. (I’m sure this will be fixed) When I invested in the company RingRevenue it took ages for their Twitter address to get into the index in time for our launch announcement. Type in the co-founder’s name, Rob Duva, and you get no results and a “did you mean “bob dunn”? OK, so a second search shows that he chose the address @robertduva but you’d think that the search algorythm could pick that up.
It’s even harder when you get into common names like Mike Jones, COO of MySpace who lists his name as Michael Jones and has a handle of @mjones. I would love to get some mapping tools that shows me who all my friends on Facebook and LinkedIn are and maps them to their Twitter address. I’d love an Outlook integration that shows me people’s Twitter address next to their email address. And I’d love to have that functionality like LinkedIn and Facebook that says “people you might want to connect with” and/or a feature that let’s other people suggest friends to you as they have on Facebook. I know it’s all coming – but for now finding people on Twitter sucks.
Update: Useful comment by David that you can find anybody if you know their Twitter name by typing out their name as in http://www.twitter.com/theman – this is also useful if you want to see all of the updates from that one person.
6. Twitter Newbies – When you first get started it’s hard to figure out. It’s like talking when nobody is listening. When Twitter gets better “onboarding tools” it will be truly ready for the mass market. For now it has a ways to go to be more user friendly. For all the people who are new to Twitter (and all the people who told me, “I don’t get it”) I’d say the following. It’s OK to be a “consumer” of Twitter rather than a “contributer” for a while until you get the hang of things. I spend way more time reading what people write than writing myself. Subscribe to your favorite online news sourcs (me: NYTimes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, GigaOM, AlleyInsider) my wife (Oprah, Perez Hilton and the Happiness Blog).
It’s OK to just read the news, click on links and follow your close friends. When you feeling like joining in – you will. And remember that Twitter is distributed. I enjoy reading it on UberTwitter, which is the app I run on my Blackberry to read when I have down time and feel like getting caught up. On the iPhone there’s a number of apps to choose from such as Tweetie or Twitterific. On your desktop you can read native at Twitter.com or download TweetDeck or Seesmic Desktop which give you more tools to consume things.
If you want to check out some cool Twitter stats see here – including that Los Angeles is the fastest growing Twitter city!