To broadcast is not to communicate
Why Twitter may have reached its ceiling of users - and what that says about how the medium dictates the message.
Sometimes, honesty isn’t the best policy. Just ask Twitter. In June 2015, after admitting that its user growth rate was slower than predicated, the Chief Exec ended up resigning the following day and just six weeks later share prices were at their lowest level in a year. And this, despite reporting revenues and earnings for the second quarter that were better than expected. There is clearly a fear that Twitter may have saturated its user base, which is not good news for its bottom line long-term.
A discussion on Radio 4’s Today on 12 June made an interesting observation: Twitter is a tool, it is not a social network. In other words, it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. It’s not a destination, it’s a route. And so its use, and therefore appeal, is not only limited but Twitter is merely an option – one choice among many. By contrast, let’s admit, there really is no other Facebook.
I think that’s right, and surely to part of the problem. I also think what limits Twitter is the fact that it isn’t mainstream. At first the plaything of the (mainly, media) elite, it has now been embraced by young audiences (53% of its users are under 30) who are particularly drawn in by both its mass messaging functionality and its immediacy. And, of course, consumer brands and companies fill Twitter up, trying to exploit the low-cost media it provides and badly managing how vulnerable it makes them to complaints and ridicule that are now publically available, worldwide. Then there are all the celebrities clogging it up with their self-promotion (sorry, allowing fans to get closer) and personal spats. And don’t get me started on the lazy journalists using it as a source for breaking news and reaction or commentary on any and every event. Twitter regularly breaks a story and then becomes it. Just ask Walter James Palmer, the hunter who became the hunted.
Twitter’s user profile surely testifies: this is a specialist platform, it’s not for everyone.
As you may have gathered, I have a confession to make. Whilst I know it’s important professionally, personally Twitter is not for me. I find it the virtual equivalent of a large crowd of self-indulgent people crammed in a warehouse just shouting at each other, sometimes in response to something else they’ve heard in the room (if they can hear anything except the sound of their own voice) and often just repeating it (only, louder). But mostly just all shouting about themselves. Nobody is really listening. Nobody is having a conversation, they are just saying a series of things to each other.
Just because you are broadcasting on Twitter, it doesn’t mean you are communicating. It’s like in a verbal slanging match where you know the points you want to make and you just wait for the other person to say something that you can use as an opportunity to lay down one of your pre-prepared one-liners. On the stage, it wouldn’t make sense – and audiences would never tolerate – to have two actors delivering different monologues alternately rather than a dialogue, even if they were on the same subject. So why do we tolerate it in our social media?
But my personal feelings aside, Twitter’s (at least, current) woes are a stark warning to everyone in the creative industry who is now faced with a plethora of ways to express their art and ideas. Not least, of course, those who assume that we all need to “go” social/digital/online all the time and spread ourselves across every platform known to human kind.
Here’s the thing: Twitter is not the be all and end all. Twitter is for broadcasting a message, and I’m not even convinced that it always does that particularly well. But you can’t use it even half as well to tell a story. What’s the difference? Messages inform, but stories connect. And there are far better ways to genuinely connect with people, friends, contacts, consumers (delete as appropriate) if that’s what you are trying to achieve.
When expressing our creativity, we need to know our platform as well as our audience. We need to know its purpose and its strengths. Then, either we start with the platform and craft our content to fit that platform. Or we start with our content and select the right platform that will do it justice.
For the content to deliver its aims, it needs to be sensitive to its surroundings. As a university lecturer of mine in French literature used to say as we grappled with Baudelaire, “every text has a context.” When street preachers stand on pavements in almost any corner in London, they largely get ignored. But put that same person with their same message, on Hyde Park Corner and they gather crowds. They are expected and welcomed; their audience are, if not receptive, at least accepting - which immediately creates a whole different dynamic.
Throughout human history, when a new medium has come along there has either been firm resistance or a wild enthusiasm that has immediately predicted the death of every other medium that has gone before it. In some instances, this has been proved right (can you even send a telegram these days?), in other cases less so (as far as I can tell, video has yet to entirely kill the radio star).
What this leaves us with is ever-expanding options. But they are just options. We don’t need to tell all our stories on every platform or deliver our messages through every medium. We need to tell them on the right platforms. And (shock, horror) that might not always be Twitter.