So lately, when I hear social networking described as revolutionary, I find my contrarian nature kicking in. I believe that social networking is an evolution, not a revolution. In fact, I was originally going to title this column "Enough Already With the Social Networking," but I realized that was more clever than fair. I don't mean to suggest social networking isn't the bee's knees, nor do I deny that all the kids seem to love the Facebook and the MySpace. Rather, I offer up two somewhat contrarian points of view for your consideration and refutation.
The first: In the U.S., at least, Twitter's explosive growth appears to be slowing.
The second: on Web 2.0, content isn't king.
So here we go.
Twitter growth appears to be slowing.
I know that cable news, reality TV personalities, and professionals in the Internet marketing and social media spaces are all widely embracing Twitter. But diffusion beyond this core set of constituencies, at least compared to the historical adoption curves of MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube, appears to have hit a speed bump.
You've probably already seen the Sysomos study on Twitter usage, four months old now but still of interest. At the time they found that 85% of Twitter users posted less than once a day; that 21% had never posted, that 94% had fewer than 100 followers, and -- perhaps most telling -- 5% of users generate 75% of the tweets (Ashton Kutcher and comScore Executive Chairman Gian Fulgoni, I'm looking at you...) Of course, a persuasive argument may be made that following is as important to Twitter as tweeting is, and in that context we should be careful not to evaluate Twitter traction merely by the creation of content, but also by its consumption.
I've noticed that in the circles through which I travel -- generally, old and graying yet still devilishly handsome audience measurement professionals -- attitudes toward Twitter are distinctly binary. One school just doesn't get the point; the other school is entirely energized by this new, cutting-edge technique for jacking right into the real-time zeitgeist of human consciousness a la the Matrix. No one seems to be neutral about Twitter, and that in itself is interesting. I'm on Twitter, but I am unabashedly in the former school. Several of my co-workers, and many of my professional colleagues, are in the latter school.
ComScore's U.S. Media Metrix shows that in December 2008, only 1% of U.S. Internet users visited twitter.com; by June 2009 that penetration had grown over tenfold, to 10.4% -- but, at least with respect to Web site reach, the data show that Twitter penetration has slowed. In July reach was up a comparatively modest half a point, to 10.9%; and in August we actually saw it dip slightly, to 10.6%.
To be fair, Sysomos reported that half of Twitter activity originates offsite through helper applications such as Tweetdeck -- but then, the reach figures I'm quoting are the share of the online population who hit the site at least once from a computer in a month. Even the most avid Tweetdeck users are likely to make at least one visit to the site in a month. (For comparison, Facebook -- now the Big Dog in social networking -- had a reach in Media Metrix of 46.7% of U.S. Internet users in August.)
And too, we're showing Facebook with 22 monthly visits per visitor, and Twitter with 5. Again, that frequency will understate the true Twitter activity because of the phenomenon of posting from off site; but still, the spread is noteworthy.
Perhaps most noteworthy is time spent. In August, we showed twitter.com accruing 533 million total minutes of usage; we showed that web users spend twenty-four times as much time with MySpace, and thirty-two times as much time with Facebook. Again, though, Twitter is probably more like Google than like Facebook with respect to engagement, lending itself to very short interactions as opposed to deeper dives.
Finally, I should point out that most of the avid tweeters I know do much of their tweeting from their phone, and mobile traffic is thus far excluded from Media Metrix. It will be interesting to see what the impact is on Twitter usage (and indeed, on Facebook and MySpace, both with aps on my iPhone) when we can look at the total Twitter universe, including mobile access, via Media Metrix 360. Thus far, though, at least in the U.S., incremental traffic accruing from mobile devices remains quite small for many publishers. Twitter may well be the first significant exception to that rule.
Clearly, Twitter has become indispensible for its avid users. It will be interesting to see how that avidity spreads.
Content isn't king.
What, exactly, is the big difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0? Ultimately I think it comes down to one thing: democratization of content creation. And that is indeed profound. It used to be that large enterprises constructed websites, and you visited them. Now, through platforms like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, through photo-sharing sites and blogging platforms, through product review sites and so on, some of the biggest digital media companies have carved out a soft deal for themselves: now you create the content. They just have to sell the ads.
Marshall McLuhan observed that the content of any new medium is the previous medium; novels provided fodder for film, films became content for TV, off-network reruns became the original content of cable. The content types in Web 2.0 -- videos, photos, conversations, product reviews, even the cyber hook-up -- are, really, the content of Web 1.0. The lone exception, ironically, is the tweet, the 140-character blast of what's-happening-now that populates Twitter and often your status on Facebook -- and is, indeed, the first wholly new content type of Web 2.0. (Of course only a curmudgeon would point out that much of the content of tweeting is linkage to digital versions of traditional media content.) While one of the watchwords of Web 2.0 is UGC (user-generated content), I was creating UGC back in 1999, when I wrote my first Amazon review (5 stars for Lucinda Williams.)
At comScore, we've tracked the rise in popularity of social networking around the world. In the U.S., since we began breaking out the category separately in July of 2007, time spent by Americans with Social Networking has increased 35%. Globally, Social Networking reach is up 17% in August year over year, and time spent is up 26%; in August 2009 we projected that over two thirds of the world's 1.2 billion Internet users visited a social Networking site.
But at the same time, we've also tracked a commensurate decline of the community and personals categories. The fabric of these categories hasn't died; people are still forming communities, seeking out others with similar interests, even finding dates and playmates online. They're just doing it through social networking platforms. The digital milieu for the activities and content types has shifted.
But if the content of Web 2.0 is not really new, the passing of control is profound. In moving from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, we have realigned the tools and content types around the consumer. We've put the consumer in control, made 300 million copies of the keys to the kingdom and made them available for free download.
So why don't I think this is a revolution? Because revolutions are violent, turbulent, and often unsuccessful; whereas evolution is natural, orderly, and inexorable, and involves adaptation and alignment around shifting environments. And that describes the migration to web 2.0, and the emergence of social networking, to a T.