Saturday, May 16, 2009

Religion, politics...and Twitter

Twitter, I have decided, joins religion and politics as subjects best avoided by well-mannered conversationalists. This past week, I found myself embroiled in no fewer than three separate debates on the subject, with friends who I count among the smartest marketers I know.

“I really don’t care what some teenager in Omaha had for breakfast,” said one.

“It’s a testament to narcissism,” said another.

“Passing fad, and a giant time suck,” said the third.

All three cited a widely-reported Neilson Online study ( which found that 60% of Twitter first-time users never return. Twitter Quitters, they’ve been dubbed. The staggering number of Twitter Quitters proves my colleagues’ points, right?

Right…and wrong.

At the risk of critiquing the emperor’s new clothes, the fact is, joining Twitter – and figuring out how to use it – can cause frustration of epic proportions. It’s not the least bit intuitive. If a new user is not armed with a helpful news article about how to use Twitter, they’re sunk. Twitter becomes something to conquer…after much time-consuming research and a whole lot of trial and error. Along the way, you will inevitably feel stupid.

What successful business attracts new customers by making them feel stupid?

The other thing one quickly learns is that Twitter itself is not particularly useful. The usefulness comes from related programs, such as Tweetdeck, WeFollow and Twellow. Twitter won’t do what these applications do, and there is no link to them on Twitter. You have to go find them yourself.

The Neilson Online statistics come as no surprise to me.

And yet…

If one actually does get past the painful process of joining Twitter -- figuring out how to use the related programs, building a respectable numbers of followers, and following smart and interesting people -- it’s an invaluable tool. Yes, there are teenagers in Omaha tweeting about what they had for breakfast. Yes, there are narcissists who produce literally hundreds of tweets per day – I hope they get professional help. I don’t follow these people.

I do follow various breaking news sources, and enjoy being kept up-to-date on events around the world. It saves me time. I follow leaders in my field and get interesting bits of information, all in 140 characters or less. I have found ways to research companies, products, and customer perspectives that can’t be duplicated by conventional search engines. I get links to articles and blogs that I would never have found on my own. I’ve made important business contacts and developed “virtual” friendships.

I am a fan of Twitter: The End Product, but certainly not Twitter: The Process. And although I’m not a Twitter evangelist, I do find it extremely useful.

But what is it about Twitter that evokes such vitriol from so many people, whether they are Twitter Quitters or simply social observers? Certainly there are those who are uncomfortable with the way social media – including the monstrously-successful Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn – lays bare many of the details of our professional and personal lives. Those folks may never get on the bandwagon, even as the bandwagon leaves without them. But Twitter commands a uniquely hateful response from millions of otherwise savvy internet users, and the reasons for that may be more complex. Is it fear of a technology that moves just too fast? Is it the realization that, as we get older, we may become this generation’s version of Grandpa trying to master the cell phone? Or could it be the frightening vision, in the extreme, that we may someday find ourselves chained to a computer, tweeting our thoughts, while no one is listening?