I like Twitter, but it has a big problem

Really, I’m sure that Twitter has more than a single problem – most companies/concepts/new technologies do. But I think that the main issue with Twitter is that it will never gain mainstream adoption until there is an easier way to get new people understanding and using the technology – a quick and easy way.

Twitter logoHere are the issues that I think make Twitter so difficult to start using:

1) It’s hard to explain. I have been in a number of business meetings in the past month where the topic of Twitter came up. In one meeting (about social media) the person doing the presentation hadn’t heard of Twitter and everyone in the room looked at me like I had two heads when I brought it up. In another meeting, the president of a content creation company told me that his company “Looked into Twitter, didn’t get it, and figured that it would never have mainstream adoption.” I tried to tell these people why they should care about Twitter, why people telling each other “what they’re doing” in 140 characters or less was important, but they just didn’t get it. And I’m sure that was my fault because I did a terrible job explaining. There MUST be a better way to explain. I think this video was awesome and helpful, but what about when I don’t have a video handy?

2) There is no “key selling proposition.” Lovers of Twitter will tell me that I am crazy, that Twitter is so great because it does so many things for so many people. But I would tell you that to get mainstream adoption, it needs a key selling proposition. How do I get people to use Facebook? I tell them that it’s a low-key way to connect with friends I’ve lost touch with (and I give examples). How do I get people to use Tumblr? I explain how I can link to things and pictures and stories and all the stuff that I find interesting on the Web and that I can set it up in about 1 minute.

I don’t have ONE good way to get people to start using Twitter. Some people say that they get immediate and great input on restaurants when they are traveling. Twitter birdOthers say that they use it when they’re lost or to get answers to questions. But I haven’t effectively used Twitter in any of those ways (although I’ve tried). I am not sure if that is because you have to have a certain number of people following you, a certain level of celebrity within the group that is following you, or if you actually need to know the people in your Twitter network, but those uses clearly don’t work for everyone. I am left without a great way to convince everyone that I know that they should use Twitter (and people I know using Twitter would be the one way that the service would actually begin to be extremely useful to me).

3) People sign up and then leave. This almost happened to me. I started using Twitter, had a bad experience, left, came back and managed to stick with it (although I’m hardly a Twitter power-user.) Here’s my embarrassing story:

I started using Twitter on October 18, 2007, with this Tweet: “Joining twitter, trying to figure out how it works” 

My fourth Tweet was this: “There’s never been a better time to do a startup http://www.scribemedia.org/…” Followed quickly by my fifth Tweet: “I should get a tatoo”

Of course, I meant for my fifth post to be connected to the fourth post, but I got tripped up by the 140 character limit. So I quickly went in to try to delete the fifth post and couldn’t – there’s no delete. So then I was horrified because I was trying to establish my professional Internet presence and not only did my Tweet say “I should get a tatoo” but I didn’t even spell tattoo correctly. I quickly made a couple of other posts in hopes of covering up the embarrassing post, and then bailed.

I came back again on January 4, 2008, with this message: “Trying Twitter again. I wish I could get into it.”

My next Tweet: “about to throw twitter out the window. just tried to send a direct message, dont think it worked. grrrr ”

Thank God for @tylerwillis who quickly replied “it worked if it was the one to me.” He might have saved my Twitter life. I kept going.

Everyone was writing about Twitter. I knew that I had to figure out how to use it, but I was struggling. I personally knew only one person who used Twitter. My friends (mostly non-techies) and business colleagues (behind in Web 2.0) weren’t using it. So I started ”following” people, just in an attempt to see how Twitter worked. I currently follow 585 people, most of whom I started following on January 4th or 5th.

Then I started getting input from people about how I shouldn’t follow so many people and how I was incorrectly using Twitter. This is a gem that I received that day (via email):

“Saw you follow me on twitter, and you seem really interesting but.. can I respectfully refer you to this document http://www.caroline-middlebrook.com/blog/twitter-guide/ . ( i.e #3). Sorry just telling it like it is :-(

I had no idea what this guy (who I didn’t know) was talking about. I went to the link and this is what the link said:

Twitter Guide Part #3: Using Twitter Properly

So I figured that I made a mistake, that I broke some “Twitetiquette” but I had no idea what. So I wrote my new email buddy back to ask what my issue was. This is what he told me in reply:

“I know from your blogs that you are a top person. intelligent and info source. When I looked at your twitter follow I checked it out and simply you were not someone I would want to follow. … Bottom line, would you want to read and follow your own twitter posts? Maybe you would? …

With twitter you get flooded with feeds and if feeds are pointless crap, then people don’t have the time to follow them, unless they already know and are interested in the pointless crap of that person….

I can only tell you that when I looked at your twitters, you offered me “nothing” of interest.”

OUCH. I was a brand-new Twitter user being shown the door for writing “pointless crap” on Twitter.

I clearly am someone of outstanding stubbornness (or stupidity) because I stuck with Twitter. And I still use it, although not as much as some people. But I have a feeling that this experience that I had, this barrier to entry that was almost impossible to overcome, is probably holding people back from adoption.

When I went through the phase (lasting 2 days) of trying to add a lot of people at once, I had some strategies. One of those was to add all the people named “Melissa.” I typed the name into the search box and found that most people named Melissa have quit on Twitter after joining. Here’s the “Recently” timeframes of the first 19 Melissa’s that show up:

2 days ago
about 1 year ago
7 months ago
11 months ago
about 1 year ago
about 1 year ago
protected
3 months ago
15 hours ago
11 months ago
protected
9 months ago
10 months ago
protected
21 days ago
9 months ago
9 months ago
4 months ago
13 hours ago

If I consider “current” Twitter users as anyone who has sent a message in the past month, and I eliminate the Melissa’s who have protected updates, only 3 out of 16 (19%) are still current users of Twitter. I thought this might be an issue between female/male users of Twitter, so I did the same thing with my husband’s name (Christopher). I found this:

about 1 year ago
5 months ago
3 days ago
8 months ago
10 months ago
19 days ago
protected
2 days ago
20 days ago
about 1 year ago
7 months ago
2 hours ago
about 1 year ago
protected
about 1 year ago
11 months ago
10 months ago
10 months ago
protected

The results were a little better – 5 out of 16 (31%) were recent Twitter users. But in my unscientific study, there is clearly a huge drop off from the number of people who sign up to Twitter compared to the number of people who continue to use the service.

4) The people who don’t use Twitter don’t understand the language of it. Anyone who reads this post who doesn’t use Twitter will not know the following terms and what they mean to Twitter or how to use them:

@mchang16 (the @ symbol is the biggest because it’s all over Twitter, and not intuitive)
Follow
Tweet
Twitetiquette
Recently

Something needs to be done to make it easier to get people to use Twitter, and to get them to stick around to learn how to use (and keep using) it after signing up. If that doesn’t happen, there will be no widespread future for the service.

Follow me on Twitter (if you dare!) @mchang16.

(As a footnote to this story, my email buddy and I became Facebook friends, although he still doesn’t follow me on Twitter.)

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