The Evolution Will Be Tweeted

I'm a contrarian by nature.  In the late '70s, I hated disco; it wasn't until this past summer that I finally put "Boogie Oogie Oogie" on my iPod (it isn't populist anymore; now it's just ironic.)

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.

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14 comments about "The Evolution Will Be Tweeted".
  1. Dan Roberts from Hearst Digital Media , October 9, 2009 at 12:59 p.m.

    Well stated. Evolution is a great way to frame the impact of social - particularly twitter. Personally, I think Twitter is still in its infancy, like search circa 1999. Its the activity that Twitter represents that will transform the way we engage and interact with content and even each other. Facebook status updates are part and parcel of the same evolution, and who knows who will ultimately be the 'Google' in this respect - hell, it might even be Google!

  2. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry , October 9, 2009 at 1:06 p.m.

    As a matter of confession, I am a late convert to Twitter. What was holding me back from embracing the platform earlier was its rep as a self-indulgent exercise in navel gazing (I don't care what Ashton had for breakfast!). It wasn't shown to me what Twitter could do that any other social media platform couldn't do better.

    I've since come to see that Twitter is extremely versatile and there are a lot of "right" uses. For me, it's easier than using email, is arranged to find relevant content quickly and gives me control over what I'm seeing. Rather than "what are you doing now," perhaps Twitter's mantra should be "what would you do with 140 characters?"

    http://www.quisenblog.com www.twitter.com/mickeylonchar

  3. Joshua Chasin from comScore , October 9, 2009 at 1:43 p.m.

    I've expressed my own skepticism abot utility of Twitter to profssional colleagues, and perhaps the best advice they have offered in return is to ask quesions. Your network of folloers becomes a resource into which you are able to tap in real time.

    In fact, I believe that is how Khloe Kardashian decides each day if this skirt goes with these shoes...

    Our chairman, Gian Fulgoni, who helped me craft this column, is a big Twitter fan. He has mastered Twitter, and I'd refer you here to see how: http://cindymilleratl.com/blog/2009/10/09/introduce-yourself/

  4. Kim Barrington from the kimbro agency , October 9, 2009 at 1:45 p.m.

    All very true. And I confess to be a later convert to twitter as well but I also confess to liking it. I have several ideas for it, in their infancy, but it's a powerful medium. Mr. O showed us that.

    Beyond that, insofar as social media participation is concerned, I wonder what the numbers will look like when the economy begins to, for lack of a better turn of phrase, "happen again?" Will involvement fall off simply for lack of time.

    You have to remember today people overall have in some ways more time on their hands due to business falling off, unemployment, an urge to do more online for the sake of brand awareness, etc. etc. and these things are all tremendously time consuming. This isn't to say that the medium is going away, I don't think so, but I've seen the numbers hitting my blog go way up in both August and September....these are unique visitors through Google search. My observation is that there are larger reasons than the pure love of social media underlying the increase in traffic.

    What say you?

  5. Kathy Warren from Powered, Inc. , October 9, 2009 at 2:05 p.m.

    Thank you for making me laugh out loud this morning - great, witty post. And thanks also for supporting your argument with data. I don't think your points are contrarian at all - they are pragmatic and data-driven - a welcome point-of-view to balance all the 'social evangelism' out there.
    One note on content - I was ready to disagree (admittedly I'm biased) because my job is to work with global brands to build large scale communities and great expert authored content is the secret to community success (i.e. most of our communities have over 200K active members up to 1.2MM). Also, the commoditization of content is exactly why our communities work - humans don't have the time to find and qualify long-tail sources and you can't find the content on publisher sites any more for all the pop-over/up/around advertisements. BUT as I read beyond the headline, I completely agree with your points as they apply to social networking/applications proper - in that context, UGC is king.

  6. Peter Schankowitz from Joe Digital, Inc. , October 9, 2009 at 2:11 p.m.

    I agree with Dan Roberts. Let's all agree that the real value is the introduction of a new way to engage that will evolve in one way or another. I too have the feeling that the real value here is in the distance and may look nothing like the current platform. Watching the self-absorbed use evolve into a source for not only day and date, but minute by minute "news" in Iran a few months ago is evidence of the power to come.

    My only problem with Josh Chasin's article is that he broke the rule and actually accepted Disco into his life.

  7. Kevin Horne from Lairig Marketing , October 9, 2009 at 3:17 p.m.

    I'm getting ahead of this article here, but anyway...here's hoping that in Web 3.0 we get a good discussion going about the too-often-tossed-off-nonchalantly phrase "the consumer is in control"

  8. Joshua Chasin from comScore , October 9, 2009 at 4:41 p.m.

    Ironically, Peter! Ironically!

  9. Doug Larner from DMS , October 9, 2009 at 5:14 p.m.

    Like the prior media perspective. Here in Europe the prior to Twitter is SMS messaging that is huge compared to the US, not Web 1.0.

    Whilst pragmatism has its place so does seemingly blind faith in new (OK, to the sceptics not entirely new) channels. After all what would the VC's and angel investors do without some thing new to justify their leading edge plays which, in turn, supports digital progress.

  10. Katherine Ryan from Independent Consulting , October 9, 2009 at 5:57 p.m.

    I like the question Kim posed. I for one have embraced Twitter and think it is in fact, a powerful branding tool. But I have to confess, as my client list grows, my time spent twittering has dwindled a bit. My appetite for digital media market news is still huge and so is my list of Twitter favorites, but it's increasingly difficult to find the time to offer up my thoughts.

  11. Thom Kennon from Brabble , October 9, 2009 at 6:06 p.m.

    I dunno, sounds like your experience with how social content, social networks & social media works could be mostly from what you pick up in the trades or what your boss shares.

    To hold up the micro blog tweet as the defining output or currency of "social media" is a superficial critique of the new medium. And to mis-guess why content is or isn't central to all this further belies a (sorry!) pretty newbie view of the shuddering ground shifting beneath our feet. We kid, because we love...

    I too was there during disco and mostly stuck with Patty, the Pistols, Buzzcocks etc. But I'm still paying at least enough attention to recognize that what happens to content - videos, apps, music tracks, articles, widgets, links, search ads, pictures etc - when you set it loose across the wild and amorphous territory of the socnets (and puh-leeze, i am NOT talking about Facebook...) - is enough to make even the most jaded amongst us keep our dancing shoes shined and ready to lace.

  12. Brian Cody from the Cody Company , October 10, 2009 at 10:47 a.m.

    I utilize Face Book, Linked In, and Twitter, The social media is like the 1990's TV show "Cheers". It is where everybody can known your Brands name. In stead of being a local neighborhood bar, social media is a global watering hole where you can engage people into a conversation and foster a sense of belonging to a community.
    Feel free to follow me on Twitter at=> http://www.Twitter.com/FrugalityAdvice
    Read my article on my blog anytime at => http://bit.ly/7fZZA

  13. Chris Koch , October 12, 2009 at 1:01 p.m.

    Josh,
    Nice article. But I think you're missing the revolution by trying to focus on the constructive. The real revolution is on the destructive side of the equation. Our traditional business model for media is imploding. Advertising-supported media is becoming an unsustainable business. The Web 1.0 content that you refer to is going away. There won't be nearly as much to link to through Twitter in the coming years, and that's the revolutionary subtext that's going on behind the evolution of Web 2.0. What happens as thousands of small and medium-sized newspapers and magazines disappear? How does Web 2.0 fill that void? Will it be replaced by spending our time reading Shaq's tweets?

    As far as the evolution goes, I think you're on to something when you say that the ability to follow someone (offline I think we call it stalking) is perhaps Twitter's most powerful feature. Think of how Twitter has changed the rules of relationships with that and you'll see that there is the potential for something very big here. This idea of viral relationship building (following followers of others) is what Facebook and MySpace look at and get really jealous about. They're stuck in the model of making relationships the old fashioned way: through trust and experience. Twitter has created a sandbox where those rules are mitigated by technology and people are liking it because they know everyone else is (or should be) playing by the same rules. In this sense, I think the comparisons between Twitter and Facebook are less valid than those between Twitter and another phenomenon that changed the way we relate to each other: eBay. You can't deny that eBay is a revolution. Tens of thousands of people make their primary living from it now on a global basis. Twitter has all sorts of options for expanding based on the viral relationship model it has created. Sure, now it's 140-character updates, but the viral social model has all sorts of potential for other things, too.

  14. Katherine Warman Kern , October 12, 2009 at 3:33 p.m.

    Recently Ryerson Journalism Univ. held a panel on Whats Next For News featuring Clay Shirky and Andrew Keen in which they used the Reformation as the metaphor for what is going on now. Keeping with the metaphor, I commented that the Reformation led to the Enlightenment. http://disq.us/18nto After shifting the power away from abusive institutions and back to individuals, there was a realization that there is a need for some structure to maintain order. The Philosophes argued for "fraternite" the writers of the US Constitution struggled with balancing individual freedom with responsibility to the larger community.

    Comradity is looking forward to the challenge of building that new order.

    Katherine Warman Kern
    @comradity