When a member of the old guard barges into their cozy backyard, the Digerati jump up and strike indignant poses. And when the intruder’s point is missed, its author gets crucified. This is what happened to Bill Keller, the New York Times’ executive editor, when he dared to write a column critical of Twitter. In short, Keller’s well-documented piece, titled “The Twitter Trap“, contends the medium’s shallowness encourages superficial exchanges to the detriment of in-depth discussions. When, as a minor provocation, he twitted “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss“, someone keyboarded back “Depends who you follow” — and should have added: “… Depends also on how you follow people”.
I will stop short of joining the crowd of zealous Bill Keller critics. But I’m not fond of the piece, either: on several counts, I consider it misguided.
1 / Twitter is in fact small, and therefore cognitively inoffensive. Officially, the micro-blogging network (we ought to call it a media) born five years ago has 200 million users. This supposedly huge user base allowed it to raise about $360m in capital, including a last round of $200m led by Kleiner Perkins, the Valley venture capital grandee, on a $3.7bn valuation. Stunning indeed.
Now, let’s get back to Earth. Over the last 18 months, traffic has stayed flat. Time spent is eroding: 14 mn 6 sec per user in March 2010 vs. 12 mn 37 sec in March 2011. Contrast this to more than 6 hours spent on Facebook. (According to a recent cover story in Fortune, Mark Zuckerberg is said to pay less and less attention to Twitter’s evolution). Despite occasional news cycle-triggered traffic outbursts (the Spring unrest in Arab countries is a good example), such spikes don’t really translate into audience gains. As for the number of accounts, half are idle. And, as usual on the internet, the usage is extremely concentrated: 10% of all users account for 90% of the twits.
In the latter figure lays Twitter’s peculiar character: as they get better at using the medium, its most powerful users’ voices becomes louder than ever.
2 / Twitter is controlled by the user. The most notable fact in Twitter’s evolution is the increasing sophistication of its users. The top ten percent have become good at finding the best “relevancy niche”, i.e. a sector in which they’ll be able to rise above the crowd. Many do so by mastering all the available tools: they look a their retweets data, monitor who retweets them, and watch their ranking.
Symmetrically, the passive audience (reading more than actually twitting), has become adept at continuously refining their feed selection. Prattlers prone to comment on the Saturday night sports games tend to be abandoned to the benefit of those who stick to their expertise. Trimming subscriptions has become mandatory on Twitter (as it is on Facebook).
3 / Twitter’s pervasiveness has nothing in common with what we observe on Facebook or Google. As a business, Twitter’s trajectory looks more like Yahoo’s (unfortunately in a more precocious way) than a Google’s or Facebook’s. Zuckerberg’s social network enjoys unabated growth and much better monetization: it extracts about $3 in revenue per user (and makes a profit at it) versus $0.25 for Twitter.
This gap allows Facebook to continuously roll out new features. As a result, its already faithful users end up even more solidly anchored, increasing their time spent on the service. Twitter, on the other hand, has yet to show a sustainable business model, and its small core of heavy users remains difficult to monetize. This results in a hard to break vicious circle: no cash-flow => no investment capacity => costly investments due to a theoretically large user base. Twitter’s inability to introduce new sticky features is likely to further concentrate the twitterer base, while the broader circle of less involved users will tend to look elsewhere for excitement.
It will be difficult for Twitter’s management and investors to find their way out of this decaying orbit.
Already, Twitters’s limitations are visible in the way users consume online news. According the a study conducted by the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism and based on Nielsen data (PDF here), Twitter is an insignificant referral (1%) for news when compared to Facebook (5%) or Google (30%). However, the use of Twitter deserves to be encouraged in the newsroom (and taught in journalism schools), since:
a) it is an effective promotional tool for value-added stories;
b) it allows reporters to actually pinpoint their most loyal audience – and establish a relationship with it;
c) it doesn’t kill value like RSS feeds do (see a previous Monday Note on that matter).
Twitter will increasingly be a one-to-a-few medium, with a small base of hard-core users, increasingly selective about the contents they broadcast and who they follow. In passing, this trend will further reinforce the ongoing news sites traffic concentration where about 5% of the users account for 75% of the page views. (As an example, the Pew Research study indicates that 85% of USA Today.com users visit the site less than 3 times a month. And for the top 25 American news sites, “power users”, i.e. visiting a site more than 10 times a month, account for only…. 7% of the total).
Bill Keller’s handwringing about Twitter largely miss the point. Twitter remains largely controlled by its users, on both emitting and receiving sides. That is not the case for the search business that relies on sophisticated and secret algorithms to serve contents supposedly tailored for us – without our knowledge of this invisible editing (see this enlightening TED video by Eli Pariser on what he calls the “Filter Bubble”). What Bill Keller ought to worry about is the algorithm-powered news stream, designed to maximize its audience — and the advertising revenue. Therein lies the real danger for the brains of our children and their ability to learn how to judge by themselves. In comparison to the AOL Way (I’m referring to the stats-based news master plan exposed by Business Insider), the use of Twitter is a trifling matter.