Twitter Is Kind of Useless

The AAAS annual meeting was last week, which apparently included some sessions on social media use. This, of course, led to the usual flurry of twittering about the awesomeness of Twitter, and how people who don't use Twitter are missing out. I was busy with other stuff, so I mostly let it pass, and of course I can't find representative examples now because Twitter.

The truth is, though, Twitter is kind of useless. Or, rather, it's only useful for certain kinds of things-- it's social media, and much more social than media.

So it's a great medium for talking to people you're not physically close to. And if that's an important part of what you do, Twitter can be very useful. Journalists love it, because it provides fast access to expert commentary when they need it, and a way to pass time. It's very popular with scientists who do the sort of science that involves sitting in front of a computer a lot of the time-- if you're regularly waiting for code to compile, or simulations to run, it's great. And, of course, it's great for various kinds of low-energy activism, so if publicly supporting political causes is important to you, you should definitely be on Twitter.

For a lot of other people, though, Twitter has little to offer. If you're doing the kind of science that involves being in a lab turning knobs, Twitter is worse than useless. It's not much use for getting questions answered without a critical mass of people who do the same kind of thing you do-- if I want to know something about theoretical cosmology, I can tweet a question and get an answer, but if I have a question about my own field of AMO physics, I'm much better off sending an email. I could tweet a question, but I'm just going to end up emailing the relevant people eight hours later, after nobody responds on Twitter.

And if your business involves trying to get people to engage with or even purchase stuff that doesn't fit on Twitter, it turns out not to be all that useful, as Derek Thompson demonstrates over at the Atlantic. Looking at Twitter stats for a bunch of his tweets advertising pieces he wrote, he finds an average click-through rate of a couple of percent. As he notes, that's about the same as a banner ad. People favorite and re-share links about fifty times as often as they read the linked articles.

And that's tremendously depressing for those of us in the business of trying to get people to buy books. Because if only one person in fifty will actually click on a link to a blog post, the number who will go on from there to make a purchase is far, far smaller.

This is, of course, much on my mind at the moment, because I've been busting my ass promoting Eureka as much as I can. And while I've gotten lots of favorites and retweets and even a good amount of blog traffic, I haven't sold a lot of books. All that social activity doesn't translate into moving media, and that's deeply frustrating.

So I'm near a local minimum of my oscillating esteem for Twitter and other social media. Twitter can be a fun distraction at times-- I'm spending a lot of time these days sitting on the sidelines while SteelyKid does taekwondo, and Twitter's a godsend then-- but I can't really say I find it essential, even for the science communication side of what I do. It does drive a bit of traffic, so it's not totally worthless, but it's a miserable medium for the kind of writing I prefer to do, and not even that good an advertising channel.

So, if I were advising young scientists or authors at AAAS or some other conference, I wouldn't be all that evangelical about Twitter. Like anything else, I would say that it's worth trying, but if you go a few weeks and still don't see the point, it's not that you're Doing It Wrong. It's more likely that you're in one of the many categories of people for whom Twitter is kind of useless.

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Some folks at Purdue were working on some interesting use of Twitter with proprietary software in some of their courses - increasing "live" discussions and a bit more. I haven't seen how that turned out.
We were urged to set up twitter accounts for our courses to increase student interaction. It never panned out. On the other hand, I have many more students who communicate by text than email. Go figure.

So I don't see an big use for twitter. I follow several comedians simply for the yucks, but nothing else.

I read that piece (not a twitter referral) and can't say I was surprised. I get these weekly summaries, don't you? And these numbers tell the story very aptly. I get much more engagement from facebook - not only do people get a few sentences of the article I'm referring to and an image, they can also comment there directly (and, sure, in many cases they do this without having read the thing, but not as bad as on twitter).

I have also noticed that Twitter is only great if you're connected all the time. If you only spend a small fraction of your time on the computer, you're missing so much on Twitter that it's barely worthwhile to pay attention to except for random funnies.

one of the local NPR stations had someone discussing the newspaper problem - they are going broke, and can't figure out what to do about it. They can't all turn themselves into Amazon.
The whole psychology of information overload and free stuff creates a 'race to the bottom'. A long time ago someone suggested a Micro-payment model. It seems more honest - but then one has the Facebook model - they sell your information and tell you 'it is free and always will be'. Does everything have to degenerate to that kind of approach ?
Maybe it will burn itself out. i used to enjoy going to bookstores - especially McGraw Hill science, and Strand.
But i expect that things are going to get worse before a more reasonable model emerges.

By Joel Rice (not verified) on 20 Feb 2015 #permalink

I have also noticed that Twitter is only great if you’re connected all the time. If you only spend a small fraction of your time on the computer, you’re missing so much on Twitter that it’s barely worthwhile to pay attention to except for random funnies.

Yeah, this is another big reason why I'm not particularly good at Twitter-- my free time for reading and tweeting doesn't line up all that well with other people's-- I'm predictably on the computer before 9am and after 8pm, and only sporadically around during the middle part of the day. Which means a lot of conversations pass me by, and Twitter is deliberately ephemeral, so figuring out what went on is annoyingly difficult.

I agree with this piece. I do not think Twitter is actually useful but it is still a fun way to pass the time. Are there any other recommendations for a social media that everyone can interact and learn more valuable information, or is following blogs still the better option?

By Rudi du Toit (not verified) on 25 Feb 2015 #permalink