Friday, April 17, 2009

Thoughts About Twitter

Two observations from today's class discussion in Competing With Social Networks seemed especially important for understanding Twitter's future:
  1. The service has an exceptionally high abandonment rate.
  2. Twitter's network is comprised of asymmetrical ties, i.e., those followed need not reciprocate.
The question is: To what extent does #2 explain #1?

Before tackling that question, it's worth noting that high abandonment rates are common with buzz-fueled, fast-growing social networking services. CSN Prof. Misiek Piskorski pointed out in class that 40% of Facebook profiles are barren. In Second Life, 90% of new users abandon their avatars after just a few hours. Second Life faces two barriers to retaining users: fiendishly complex and crash-prone software that takes weeks to master, plus a big "what's this for?" problem. By comparison, Twitter is very easy to use, yet its abandonment rate is still very high. In Managing Networked Businesses this week, a class guest suggested that Twitter's abandonment rate may be as high as 98%!

In CSN, the class advanced a hypothesis that Twitter's low engagement levels might be explained by:
  1. A "howling at the moon" problem. There's little incentive to produce content if no-one is listening. Twitter's asymmetric tie structure exacerbates this problem. Some users are happy to produce with no audience, but most fail to see the point, so they quickly abandon their account.
  2. Twitter's lean, text-only format. Expressing yourself in 140 characters, without photos, etc. was held to be intimidating or at least in some way unsatisfying for many users.
I don't buy the second point. The mass market is very comfortable with IM and SMS, which typically display only short text messages.

With respect to the first point, is a new user's difficulty finding followers: a) a temporary problem that will fade as the service grows and improves friend search tools? or b) a permanent problem endemic to a service with asymmetric ties? I favor the first hypothesis. Twitter will soon have a few million loyal users comprised of the digerati/social media elite/SXSW crowd; self-anointed prophets without followers who like to howl at the moon; and celebrity fans. After it reaches a threshold scale, mass market users should be able to sign up and find some real world friends/colleagues/acquaintances who'll follow them.

If my hypothesis is correct, there are still questions about how Twitter will manage the conflicts it is likely to encounter as the service evolves:
  1. Can two fundamentally different modes of use — one-way broadcast by celebrities/gurus vs. one- and two-way communications between real world friends — continue to coexist on the same site? Technically, yes: you can follow Ashton and Oprah and Leo Laporte, and never post; I can post frequently for friends and fill my feed with @replies; others may use Twitter in both ways. But will the service ever have a coherent brand identity if it continues to accommodate both usage modes? That's a very tricky marketing problem. If I had to bet, communication between friends will gradually overwhelm celebrity micro-blogging.
  2. How will Twitter handle the inevitable tension between early and late adopters? Newbies always cause friction in social networking services because they do not understand community norms. In addressing this conflict, the asymmetry of network ties should be a benefit for Twitter: Ms. SXWS need never follow Mr. Hoi Polloi, although she may need to contend with some annoying @replies that he generates. On the other hand, Twitter will be unusually vulnerable to spam problems due to asymmetric ties and the ease with which bots can auto-search and @reply to public conversations.
  3. How will Twitter handle the blurring of social context that occurs when users co-mingle personal and professional relationships? Misiek suggested that Twitter might offer a very effective way for co-workers to coordinate and communication. This rings true, but mixing social and business relationships with a single account is a high maintenance task, as we are learning from Facebook. Users could maintain two accounts, or Twitter could support filtering for groups, but this takes more work on the part of the user.
  4. How will monetization strategies impact value perceived by the community? Daniel Palestrant, founder/CEO of Sermo, an online professional network for physicians, contends that almost online communities eventually 'arc,' that is, grow rapidly then decline, often because they introduce a revenue model in conflict with the community's preferences. Example: Facebook cluttering the site with distracting, low-CPM ads or using profile/behavioral data to target ads in creepy ways. How will Twitter handle this challenge?