Twitter: Not Just for Conversation (also about Listening, Broadcasting, & Learning)

Summary: Twitter? Conversation, Broadcast, or Learning Platform? or all of the above? Based on a post by Brian Solis, this post explores whether Twitter is a conversation or broadcast platform. It also reflects on Mark Drapeau’s suggestion that Twitter is a knowledge-sharing/creation platform, more like a wiki, rather than a true social networking platform.

In a recent post, Brian Solis asks, Is Twitter a Conversation or Broadcast Platform? He answers his own question, ultimately stating, “Perhaps it’s both.” He interjects that it’s also “a listening platform – for the majority of users who use Twitter to garner insight and information, without necessarily sharing updates on their account.” Solis’ views correspond to a MarketingProfs’ study, which concludes:

“Twitter may be used as just another lead-generation tool. Or it may be about connecting with new friends. But above all, people on Twitter are truly motivated by learning new things and getting information real-time, as it’s developing.”

Twitter as a Listening Platform

As a TechCrunch post notes, “1/4 of all Twitter accounts are not following anybody and more than 1/3 have not posted a single Tweet.”  Forrester’s 2008 Technographics data similarly reports “a vast majority of people are merely spectators with less than one quarter actively publishing any content anywhere.”

A recent Harvard Business School report further observes that Twitter’s usage patterns are “very different from a typical on-line social network.”

A typical Twitter user contributes very rarely. Among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one. This translates into over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every 74 days.

Whether a user actively contributes content to Twitter or not, it remains a powerful listening platform. Just check to identify keywords that are relevant to your business. You can also use Twitter to identify trending topics. In Listening with Twitter: The Most Important Listening Tool in the Marketing 2.0 Arsenal, Jessica Bennett describes Twitter as a way “to listen to customers, prospects, competitors and influencers, removing much of the guesswork and tediousness from the process,” in a way that can be replicated across all disciplines in a customer-centric organization.

Twitter as a Broadcasting Platform

According to Solis, “statistical exploration indicates Twitter is growing in prominence. But, perhaps its importance, at this moment in time, is more closely aligned with a powerful, new, and seemingly engaging one-way broadcasting ecosystem rather than a two-way dialogue channel we initially suspected.”

Solis cites a recent Harvard Business Report, which states a small contingent of users are the most active on Twitter. According to the report, “Twitter’s resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.”

Specifically, the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. On a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for 30% of all production. To put Twitter in perspective, consider an unlikely analogue – Wikipedia. There, the top 15% of the most prolific editors account for 90% of Wikipedia’s edits. In other words, the pattern of contributions on Twitter is more concentrated among the few top users than is the case on Wikipedia, even though Wikipedia is clearly not a communications tool.

In a comment to Solis’ post, Mark D. Drapeau mentions Clay Shirky’s description of Wikipedia as “co-creation without collaboration.” “There,” according to Drapeau, “as with Twitter, very few people are responsible for the overwhelming majority of content development.” Drapeau continues to compare Twitter to Wikipedia:

While a wiki and microsharing are different, on Twitter maybe the 10% of people that contribute 90% of the tweets can be thought of as subject-matter experts who would write an entire Wikipedia page. Sure, some edits are made, some discussion ensues, but they are the “knowledge broadcasters” and the other 90% of people are the gardeners and readers. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. In theory, everyone is getting something out of the complex system.”

For another view of Twitter as an emerging broadcast platform, see the recent TechCrunch post, which reports that for many people, Twitter has replaced RSS readers. TechCrunch posts links to their Twitter account, which spread virally, as followers retweet those links. According to TechCrunch, “retweets are becoming a new type of link currency. We are big believers in retweets (in fact, there is now a retweet button at the bottom of every post).”

For us, and I’d argue increasingly for other large Websites as well, Twitter is not just about micro-media. The most powerful Tweets are those which point elsewhere. Or to put it another way, the shortened link may just be the most powerful type of micro-media there is. Those retweeted links are turning Twitter into a social broadcast media that rivals any other on the Web.

In the same vein, Cambridge-based HubSpot reports that over the last three months, “Twitter was the third-most significant source of traffic for its blog, referring almost $30,000 worth of traffic. ($30,000 is what [HubSpot] would have had to pay to buy a similar volume of traffic from Google via Pay-Per-Click ads.)”

Twitter as a Knowledge-Sharing & Co-Creation Platform

In Twitter is Not a Conversational Platform, Mark Drapeau argues further that “the underlying mechanics of Twitter more closely resemble the knowledge co-creation seen in wikis than the dynamics seen with conversational tools, like instant messaging and interactions within online social networks.” He again dismisses the idea that Twitter is collaborative, for the same reasons Wikipedia is not collaborative:

Wikis are causally thought of as platforms for “collaborative” document creation. But on Wikipedia, while many people share knowledge to co-create pages, the process is not formally collaborative in the sense that contributors are not cooperating with each other [in] ways that form group identity (to paraphrase Clay Shirky from his book Here Comes Everybody). To the contrary, passionate experts write the majority of text, and a long tail of other contributors offer relatively few, small edits. Many users contribute nothing. Through this process, Wikipedia pages often become valuable repositories of knowledge.

Drapeau further likens Twitter to Wikipedia, noting that though social relationships may form on either platform as a consequence of sharing content (for example, through direct messaging on Twitter and discussion pages on Wikipedia), “social relationships on Wikipedia and Twitter are not a prerequisite for satisfaction and success.” For instance, Drapeau explains, “the popular and useful account @BreakingNews has hundreds of thousands of followers but participate in effectively zero engagement. There are many Twitter users who contribute large amounts of useful information and engage in relatively little conversation. And it is not common for people to describe Wikipedia as a social network.”


To those who suggest “you must absolutely establish a Twitter account and commence the process of responding to everyone who Tweets about your company, market, or competition,” Solis responds, “…the more I observe interaction on social networks, and in this case Twitter, I believe that sometimes it’s effective to also maintain a presence simply by reading, listening, and sharing relevant and timely information without yet having to directly respond to each and every tweet – perhaps replying to only the critical or influential individuals that may need immediate information or direction to steer strategic activity.”

Concerning a recent Nielsen report that cast doubts on Twitter’s longevity, Mark Drapeau suggests that if Twitter is a knowledge-sharing/creation platform, rather than a true social networking platform, then its low user retention rate (just 40%) may not matter so much, especially “if the majority of use is infrequent spectating (particularly when the information is archived for asynchronous retrieval).” Drapeau again cites Clay Shirky to reinforce this point: “such an imbalance of contribution is not a condition of failure for the platform or its users.”

Meanwhile, on Brian Solis’ post, Miguel wisely notes in the comments: “Twitter will become what we make of it. Why can’t Twitter be a product of both – conversation and broadcast? Why does it have to one or the other?” As Rick Burnes makes clear in the HubSpot post “referral traffic doesn’t happen without work”—work that involves both engagement and broadcasting. He aptly observes, “You can’t buy $30,000 worth of visitors from Twitter. You have to build a network, engage with that network, then share your quality content with that network. And even if you do that, you won’t see returns overnight. But if you put in the time, make Twitter a part of your daily diet and engage with your network, Twitter will help keep your marketing strong.”

Phillip Baker’s comment on Brian Solis’ post nicely wraps up this “What is Twitter?”: Conversation versus Broadcasting” debate: “It’s like trying to define what a telephone is for – is it for chatting with friends, finding out information, shopping, banking, networking, sales? It’s used for all of the above.”

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Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog

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