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The Twitter Paradox

There's an old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Twitter is a paradox that redefines that old saying to, "If it's broke, don't fix it, because it works."

For all intents and purposes, Twitter shouldn't work, yet 200 million people (and bots) have created accounts in this thriving information egosystem. Now, news no longer breaks, it Tweets. Celebrities use it daily to connect directly with fans and also augment their income streams. Politicians and governments use Twitter to communicate with constituents and one another. Everyday people rely on Twitter to find information and share experiences. And for those more "influential" Twitter users, connectedness pays off in the form rewards, recognition, and compensation.

Twitter has evolved into a human seismograph that channels the pulse of business, politics, entertainment, news, and culture into the mobile phones and PCs and defines of our connected society. Twitter is a public confessional where screens become the window to self-expression, validation, recognition, with each contributing to a digital form of self confidence. And it is this new assurance that guides our actions in the real world. I Tweet therefore I am ... whatever I want to become.

Indeed, Twitter shouldn't work, but it does. What started as a hybrid public messaging service meets social network, is now a flourishing information network where people connect and disconnect based on interests and fleeting moments of intellectual, sophomoric and parallel intimacy. As such, Twitter forces the evolution of social networking from social graphs to interest graphs, where people are not only connected to those they know, but also those who share their interests.

While it's often chided for its ability to assemble and syndicate irrelevant, irresponsible, and questionable activity, Twitter excels in aligning relevance with those who understand how to filter streams to their advantage. And this is where things start to get interesting, as I don't believe we've seen Twitter's true impact on our digital and IRL culture.

Twitter's Awareness vs. Adoption

The state of the Twitterverse is in flux. Capturing its shape, genetic makeup and direction is akin to measuring the development of a baby in a womb. It's growing, quickly, and even though we know that a baby will arrive and grow into a human being, we never know exactly who this person will ultimately become nor can we be certain of its personality through each of the development stages.

Twitter's challenge with awareness versus adoption has plagued the fledgling company since the beginning. One of the top Google searches for Twitter after all is "I don't get Twitter."

The Pew Internet & American Life Project announced in June 2011 that Twitter usage rose from 8% of U.S. Internet users in Fall 2010 to 13% in May 2011. Representing an impressive 62% spike in adoption, many question the significance of the bump in its migration toward mainstream adoption. As eMarketer recently wrote, Twitter has a problem with Awareness vs. Usage.

Twitter's awareness has greatly benefited from the nonstop media attention it receives due to controversial and high profile users. Citing Arbitron and Edison research, we see that 92% of consumers ages 12 and up are familiar with Twitter, but only 8% actually use it. According to this graph, Twitter has an adoption problem. In contrast, Facebook adoption ranks at 57.1% of Internet users as stated by eMarketer.

As we know, numbers don't lie. eMarketer also projects that Twitter advertising revenues will soar from $140 million in 2011 to $225 million in 2012. In contrast, the once bursting place for friends, MySpace, will generate $184 million in ad revenue this year. As such, Twitter is focusing on improving (and defining) the user experience with Jack Dorsey rejoining the fold. And the company is building a sizable sales force. But even at this moment, Twitter has a model it can sell against. Since the launch of its Promoted products line, Twitter has worked with 600 advertisers on 6,000 campaigns. Twitter's director of revenue Adam Bain puts things into perspective for optimists and skeptics alike, "Eighty % of those marketers come back and buy from us again."

Now, the cost of a Promoted Trends on Twitter has jumped from $100,000 to $120,000 per day. Promoted Accounts and Promoted Tweets are auction-based and a self-service model is due to arrive before the end of the year. Bain suggests that Twitter provides higher engagement levels that outperform not only traditional digital advertising products, but also Facebook ads.

In an interview with ClickZ, Bain reinforced the value of Promoted Products, "Paying $4 for a follower is a pittance because the ROI is insane. Because again once they have a follower, they can keep marketing to that guy as many times as they want without worrying about where they are across the web or what kind of mindframe they're in."

Certainly this is no mistake, but it is something that again, wasn't anticipated. Attention has migrated to the stream and as we're learning, that while money doesn't grow on trees, it does in fact grow on Tweets.

Recently Mark Suster wrote about how the future of advertising will be integrated. In his post, Suster shared work by usability guru Jakob Nielsen that shows through heat maps where our eyes are focused. Attention zeroes in on text and not the banners around it, thus introducing an era of banner blindness.

And in social media, banner blindness is equally prevalent. Facebook Ads sell against interests and people you know. Twitter sells products that appear within your line of sight—the stream, your new attention dashboard.

The Twitter Paradox is fascinating to study. I don't believe mainstream adoption is a metric that matters to Twitter or to those who understand its benefits. Surely mass adoption is important to investors. But as a human network, we make the world a much smaller place, creating a global culture that connects people to information and events as they happen. And, through a stroke of fate or democratized serendipity, people effect how information travels and how events unfold. But at a minimum, Twitter has become an infinite well of incredible insight and intelligence and for that, it is already an indispensable service to businesses, governments, educators, and anyone who is impacted by the words and impressions of others.

Reprinted from

Brian Solis is the author of Engage and is one of most provocative thought leaders and published authors in new media. A digital analyst, sociologist, and futurist, Solis's research and ideas have influenced the effects of emerging media on the convergence of marketing, communications, and publishing. Follow him on Twitter @BrianSolis, YouTube, or at

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  • ClickTell Consulting

    you say Twitter should not work, but currently it appears to be doing so. The
    following is a recent blog we wrote on this matter. We have removed all the URL
    links to satisfy what appears to be your strict moderation protocols so hopefully
    this comment will now be posted.



    The psychology of why criticising it creates a defensive reaction.



    Why do you think people get so defensive
    when Twitter is criticised?



    Weird, isn’t it? Do you think it would
    make matters worse if I admitted that I also hate the iPhone?


    The above exchange took place during a New Yorker
    “Ask The Author Live” session where Gladwell was answering readers questions
    related to his New Yorker article, “SMALL CHANGE, Why the
    revolution will not be tweeted”.


    At ClickTell Consulting, we don’t think it is weird
    at all for the Twitterati of this world to get defensive when Twitter is
    criticised. Our Behavioural and Social Psychology Unit offers a logical and
    scientific explanation for such defensive forms of behaviour once a
    “commitment” (such as opening a Twitter or a Facebook account) has been made.


    Close inspection of relevant research publications in
    peer-reviewed journals of psychology, reveal a wealth of proven techniques for
    gaining compliance from unsuspecting targets. Historically these powerful
    insidious tools of persuasion have been used by “highly successful” salesmen
    and the advertising world. However of late, the operating models of many social
    networking sites appear to be leveraging such techniques for the purpose of
    attracting and retaining users. This may or may not be a conscious decision
    made by these companies.


    Commitment decisions (such as opening a Twitter or a
    Facebook account), even when found to be erroneous, have a tendency to be self
    perpetuating. That is, the person involved will often make up new reasons and
    justifications to support the wisdom of the initial decision – there is simply
    an inbuilt desire to be consistent.  We
    see this as one of the main reasons why, for example tweeters can get so
    defensive when Twitter is criticised.


    There are a number of techniques available for
    strengthening the initial commitment level and the ensuing desire for consistency.  And yes, just as there are psychological
    techniques for gaining compliance there are also “weapons” for reversing the


  • hardaway

    I think at the end of the day we are going to find out that Twitter is for the content creators, a way of calling attention to good content, and one of the best curation tools. Twitter allows for two-way curation: I curate who I follow, they curate what I see. If everyone doesn't tweet, so be it. Everyone doesn't report or edit, either.   It's that same damned Forrester pyramid from years ago. Or that even older 80-20 rule. I forget who said it, but Twitter's a utility.
    Namaste, dude

  • Estuardo Robles

    This Twitter paradox is similar to the Mobile Advertising Paradox that we use at AppsGeyser. Contrary to people's intuition, who think that a mobile screen is far to small to effectively be used for advertising, it is greatly in part because of the small screen that people pay close attention to it and will likely take notice of either a top or bottom banner advertisement. Like Brian says, if it is broken but working, don't fix it, we are already seeing mobile banners are having click-through rates unseen of before in any medium.