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Why The New Twitter Leaves Me Feeling Disconnected

As you have probably heard already, Twitter recently announced a new user interface and a host of new features. By adding more features, the new Twitter seems to be trying to do two things at once: make it more compelling as a social networking platform, while at the same time making it easier for the uninitiated to grasp. I think Twitter will likely fail on both counts.

Consider the context for these changes. Despite the hype around the hundreds of millions of Twitter users, a realistic assessment of its actual usage shows quite a few less. In a post from April 2011, Business Insider's Nicholas Carlson reported that there are "only" 56 million Twitter users following 8 or more accounts, and just 21 million users following 30 or more accounts. Another post quoted Twitter’s CEO in June 2011 saying that "100 million people use Twitter each day, even though 40% of Twitter account owners have not logged into their accounts in the past 30 days."

The remaining Twitter users may not be that active, either. A 2010 Nielsen study found that 67% of U.K. Twitter users spent less than 5 minutes on Twitter per month, accounting for just 4% of total traffic. On the other hand, 7% of heavy users (over 60 minutes per month) accounted for 79% of Twitter traffic. In a similar vein, a December 2010 report from Sysomos found that 81% of Twitter users have made fewer than 500 tweets, and 22.5% of users are responsible for 90% of all tweets.

I don’t mean to belittle Twitter or what they have accomplished. Twitter is a powerful network used by millions of people and thousands of brands. But what I read into these numbers is that Twitter has an influential following among the early adopter/connector types. And while these people are extremely effective in sharing information, creating trends, and selling products, Twitter seems to be struggling to reach the mass market of social networkers. Why is that?

Twitter’s challenge is that it offers a revolutionary way to communicate, requiring a radical change in user behavior. In the past, people did not trumpet 140-character messages to the ether, not knowing where the messages would fall. In fact, many heavy users of Twitter still haven’t figured out how this is supposed to work, blasting out way too many "another-morning-with-cold-coffee" messages to interest even the most ardent of followers.

Contrast this to Facebook in the consumer world, or LinkedIn in the B2B world. Facebook and LinkedIn both use a connection-oriented approach that creates a relationship between the two participants, and I think this makes all the difference. Following someone who may not care you exist does not create a meaningful bond; case in point, @SpongeBob has almost 310,000 followers. Twitter is more like subscribing to a news feed than actually connecting to people, which is unnatural for a social connection. Social connections are mutual, so offering mutual relationships online is a smoother transition than creating a new pattern for communicating. In the Twitter world, direct messages seem to be the most social part of Twitter, and I suspect they represent only a tiny fraction of all tweets.

The revolutionary vs. evolutionary battle for social networking is also playing out in the enterprise world as well, inside companies. Companies are looking to take advantage of what social networking can bring to business, but getting workers to join the conversation is really tough. Some companies are taking the Twitter approach, requiring workers to adopt a new way of working, eschewing email and documents for wikis, microblogging, ideation engines, and similar new social tools. Others are taking a more evolutionary approach, using existing communication patterns to ease people into the adoption of social tools.

If the past is any indication, the evolutionary approach will win hands down. And the stakes are high—companies trying to become social businesses through digital transformation may represent the biggest business mega-trend since Y2K.

[Image: Flickr user stevon]