I haven’t always been a fan of Twitter. For years, I was completely unconvinced of its utility – I couldn’t see the point in yet another social networking site with even more mundane status updates. But I changed my mind during the Wisconsin protests at the beginning of this year, in which social media – and Twitter in particular – played a central role.
I was a convert. I grew to love Twitter: as a source of information, of new perspectives, and of interaction. It also provided some of the instant gratification blogging lacked – when I shared a great story or offered unique insight, I could see the results through replies, retweets, and a growing following.
However, lately I’ve begun to feel concerned about the continuing utility of Twitter. And no, my fears don’t grow out of the concerns about Google+, nor do I necessarily endorse moving to a longer character length – as frustrating as it can be to fit a thought in 140 characters, the brevity of Twitter is an important component to its success (although 280 wouldn’t be that bad!). But those are different debates. Instead, I worry that Twitter will be a victim of its own success. As I become a more avid user – and as Twitter has continued to grow (to 200 million tweets per day!) – I’m concerned that it is losing some of the interaction that so was appealed for me.
As I’ve started to follow more people, I begun to recognize how difficult it is to stay current on everyone’s updates. Following about 300 people means between 100-150 updates an hour usually – and that’s a lot for someone who holds a job other than checking Twitter. And I’m on the lower end in terms of followers – how do people with even more manage to actually read anything that someone posts?
At the same time, I’ve noticed somewhat of a decline in the amount of interaction my own Twitter feed inspires. Now, it certainly could be that the content I’m posting is less engaging than formerly (especially with less mobilization around the #wiunion hash), but I also wonder – how much of what I post actually gets read?
It’s an important question to ponder. I love Twitter because it provides me a wide range of perspectives on issues and diverse sources of information – both of which are amplified when I follow more people. But the more people I follow, the harder it is to give any one tweet (or an hour’s worth of tweets) attention – in fact, it’s impossible.
I’m not the first to have this concern. Studies have shown that only 6% of tweets get retweeted – and the shelf-life of a tweet is less than an hour. For some, the solution is size: the bigger the network, the greater the chance for retweets – but this contributes to the problem of information overload. There’s also plenty of advice on how to make it more likely your tweets produce a response, although some can be disappointingly vague (create interesting content!) or overly specific (ask for ReTweets).
Thus, Twitter and its users face an interesting tension: larger networks and more tweets encourage and discourage interaction. Perhaps Twitter is just a microcosm for the information overload that comes with the expanding media environment and we can draw lessons from how people manage their media diet more generally. But how this tension will be resolved on Twitter remains an open question, both for me and for the platform – and the answer has implications for the more overarching concern: will Twitter’s success will lead to its downfall?