Twitter is Not a Conversational Platform

This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on June 9, 2009, and it was quite controversial at the time.

Perhaps the most common reason given for joining the microsharing site Twitter is “participating in the conversation” or some version of that. I myself am guilty of using this explanation. But is Twitter truly a conversational platform? Here I argue 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.

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 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.

Brian Solis recently posited the dichotomy of whether Twitter is a conversational or broadcast platform. New data bears on this. According to a Harvard Business School study, about 10% of Twitter users contribute roughly 90% of its content. Anecdotally, these 10% are subject-matter experts, passionates, mavens, and thought leaders who break news, write strong opinions, and tell jokes. Like on Wikipedia, most users merely read this information, and a modest number of people in the long tail use the information in the form of re-tweets, comments, corrections, and alternative opinions or links.

So while an individual user may use Twitter primarily as a conversational tool or a broadcast medium, in its totality, Twitter operates a lot like a wiki: as a knowledge-sharing, co-creation platform that produces content and allows its consumption. Conversation is perhaps the most simple and obvious form of collaboration, but would anyone claim that Wikipedia is a conversational platform? Despite the presence of information sharing, co-creation of an end product, and even discussion pages, Wikipedians on the whole aren’t having conversations.

According to this argument, Twitter is no more a conversational platform than Wikipedia is. But is it a social networking platform? New HBS data showing that men have 15% more followers than women and being twice as likely to follow another man than a woman also bear on this to some extent. Authors Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski state: “On a typical online social network, most of the activity is focused around women – men follow content produced by women they do and do not know, and women follow content produced by women they know. Generally, men receive comparatively little attention from other men or from women.”

As in the case of the conversational platform, it seems that Twitter is also no more a social network than Wikipedia is. Wikis have user accounts and discussion pages, and it is possible for relationships to form. Twitter has user handles and direct messaging, and relationships can form. But social relationships on Wikipedia and Twitter are not a prerequisite for satisfaction and success (inasmuch as that can be defined). For instance, the popular and useful account @BreakingNews has hundreds of thousands of followers but participants 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.

Andrew McAfee notes that two useful Twitter traits are its asynchronous and asymmetric nature. These two traits are also critical to Wikipedia, but importantly much less so within popular social networking platforms like Facebook and MySpace. Thus, entities that are clearly social networking platforms can be but are not necessarily knowledge co-creation platforms, and entities that are clearly asynchronous knowledge co-creation platforms can be but are not necessarily social networks.

If microsharing tools resemble wikis more than conversational tools and social networks, this has huge implications for how people and organizations approach use of this emerging technology. Solis suggests, I think rightly, that “sometimes it’s effective to…maintain a presence simply by reading, listening, and sharing relevant and timely information without having to directly respond to each and every tweet.” The strategy of being a “lethally generous” member of a community would seem to be more worthwhile in this context, contrasted with the individual-level customer service approach of (for example) @ComcastCares.

This framework for thinking about microsharing platforms as knowledge co-creation enablers also puts Nielsen’s recent data on Twitter’s “user retention and loyalty” in a new light. When the average user is a consumer of the content produced by subject-matter experts and passionate mavens, how much does it matter if the majority of use is infrequent spectating (particularly when the information is archived for asynchronous retrieval)? As Shirky recently noted in his talk at the IAC/ACT Management of Change Conference that I attended in Norfolk, VA, such an imbalance of contribution is not a condition of failure for the platform or its users.

Finally, if microsharing is equated with knowledge co-creation, rules for attribution becomes an important consideration. But while the wiki attribution process has generally been worked out, attribution on Twitter is like the wild west – there are no rules; only conventions that are commonly accepted in some circles but not others. In addition, it is relatively easy to cheat the system, hard to catch someone doing it, and difficult to determine what the consequences are of such behavior. This problem will be a lasting one, requiring careful consideration by not only the user community, but also Twitter itself.

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This post was written by:

Mark Drapeau - who has written 225 posts on Dr. Mark D. Drapeau.


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