April 30, 2009 -- A Nielsen report this week revealed that Twitter has an uncanny knack for hemorrhaging users.
In fact, some 60 percent of new users bail on the service within a month. For those of us who've been tweeting for a couple of years, this isn't exactly a shocker. Many longtime users have gone through that initial period of wondering what, if any, use Twitter might be. And maybe it's better for everyone if those who don't get it refrain from tweeting until they do.
I typed my first tweet at 2:45 PM on March 15, 2007, punched in six more the following day, and then took three months off before coming back. And even after returning to Twitter that July, I didn't really realize what the service could do for me beyond broadcasting my latest blog posts to a modest circle of my friends and colleagues. So it went for another year or so before I had that ah-ha moment that opened the service up to me.
Contributing to the Twitterverse
For about a year and a half, I used Twitter in the most passive way possible, letting it scrape my blog and tweet the latest headlines. It took me almost no effort, and reaped almost no reward. My tweets were infrequent enough to avoid annoying anyone (I think), but didn't likely contribute much to the Twitterverse.
Looking back, though, I suppose I probably should have held off on tweeting anything until after I had the epiphany that transformed my outlook on Twitter. Ultimately, it's better to be late to the party (or absent from it) than to unknowingly become that irritating loudmouth who constantly shouts nonsense to everyone within earshot.
In my opinion, the most commonly heard complaints about Twitter stem from a misunderstanding of it. Chief among these complaints is the utterly bunk assertion that it's just a whole bunch of people heralding the trivial events of their daily lives into the void. (i.e., "I'm going to the bathroom now!" or "Eating a yummy ham sandwich!")
Frankly, if that's how you're using Twitter, you're doing it wrong, and you should stop without subjecting your friends to a full week of that rubbish, let alone a full month.
Twitter Myth: Expression of Collective Narcissism
Another prevailing myth about Twitter is that it's just an expression of our collective narcissism, and that we're all just tweeting to hear ourselves tweet. In reality, though, the overwhelming majority of users follow far more people than follow them. And if you're tweeting more than you're reading, there's a good chance nobody's following you.
These misconceptions about Twitter persist largely among those who've either never tried the service, or who tried it for a week or so, didn't get it, and quit. Chances are good that most of these try-and-fly users are guilty of exactly the kind of inane, self-absorbed blather that they complain so vociferously about. It's nothing to be ashamed of, mind you. It seems like most newbs on the site go through that initial clueless period before finally getting it and joining the larger dialog.
But eventually, for most of us anyway, it dawns on us that Twitter is a lot more than a worldwide stream of trivial, self-promotional text bombs. And when that happens, we begin to see the beauty in Twitter's simple, terse messaging system.
Used in conjunction with a good client app like TweetDeck, Twitter becomes an active massively multi-user conversation to rival any other social medium. The more people you follow, the more enlightening that conversation can be. (Up to a point, of course. I've found that my own ability to process the incoming stream from folks I follow breaks down beyond the hundred mark.)
Getting Over Twitter Misconceptions
For those who do get it, or get over their misconceptions about it, Twitter really can be a tremendous tool for information gathering and social networking. Sure, you can follow big-name celebrities who aren't likely to follow you back or care about you, but you can also follow minor celebrities and luminaries who just might follow you back and respond to you.
More importantly, you can follow people you actually know, and keep abreast of the events in their lives and--more importantly--the ideas they're sharing in a way that requires very little of your effort or time. If the people you follow are at all interesting, you'll probably learn something from their tweets. And if they're not, you can find new people to follow.
Easy Tips for Getting the Most Out of Twitter
For those who are still trying to figure out what, if anything, Twitter has to offer them, here are a few easy tips for getting more out of the service:
1. Follow people. A lot of people.Whether you're the last in your social group to sign up or the first, it helps to follow a whole lot of people. Don't just add the dozen or so of your friends who are tweeting; look up and add some of your favorite authors, newscasters, and others you trust to deliver information that has meaning for you. Don't be shy, and don't worry about offending them if you later decide to stop following them because they turn out to be too noisy, boring, or self-promotional for your tastes. Following or unfollowing someone is a one-click affair. But if you don't follow enough people to keep your stream filled with fresh tweets each day, you'll never get a real feel for how the conversation works.
2. Don't self-promote. (Or, at least, don't overdo it.)The recent surge in Twitter's popularity has everyone thinking that joining Twitter is a smart way to boost their business, raise their public profile, or otherwise improve their social and monetary standing. In most cases, that's bull. If all you tweet about is your latest blog post, book, or other commercial venture, you'll quickly turn off most of the people who follow you. So even if you did sign up just for the hope of pecuniary gains, make a point of at least occasionally tweeting about something that real people might care about. If your followers are intrigued by the latest news story you've linked to, they might think twice about dumping you over all those get-rich-quick posts you've been spamming them with.
3. Use a Client AppTwitter's Web site is terrible. Even if it weren't constantly over capacity, its interface is static and unhelpful. But a decent client app will put all of Twitter's coolest features at your fingertips, as well as helpful third-party features like URL-shortening and photo support. I've tried most of the leading clients for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and my personal favorite across all three platforms is TweetDeck.
It doesn't really matter to me whether Twitter is a viable business unto itself. If it collapses, there are plenty of other social networks out there. And even if its user-retention rate were upwards of 80 percent, I doubt it would have any impact on Twitter's ability or inability to turn a profit. So the effect of newbies abandoning their accounts is probably a net gain for the rest of us in terms of reduced congestion on the site and fewer annoying, clueless tweets.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not dissing those who check it out and then bail, even though it may sound that way. As near as I can tell, almost everybody goes through that check-it-out-then-bail phase when they first try it out. What I am saying is that if you're not getting it, and it's not resonating with you, we won't miss you if you log off until you get a clue.
Robert Strohmeyer is a senior editor at PC World, and he tweets as @rstrohmeyer. You can follow him if you want to, and he may follow you back.