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.
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.
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.)
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-.