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Conversations don't scale

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25 February 2010

conversations dont scale

You follow me I follow you back?

Don’t be fooled.

If somebody that’s following you on Twitter follows 10,000 other people, don’t expect to have a meaningful tete-a-tete with them. And if you’re following 1,000 people on Twitter, don’t even pretend that you will notice half the stuff they are saying.

Social media is full of misconceptions, confusion and unexamined clichés. That social media is about conversations is one of these. Yes, conversations are part of social media, but this fixation with conversation misses the one core element that makes it truly different from other media.

In truth, the basic rules of media and messaging have not changed at all.

  • It’s still perfectly possible for one media outlet to speak to thousands of people;
  • We also know that people have a limited attention span;
  • And we know that we can’t have a two way conversation with many people at the same time. When I worked for Lycos for instance, celebrities like Natalie Imbruglia were invited to do chats with fans. These chats never really took off. The stars could only reply to one person at a time, leaving many chatters frustrated.

None of these things have been altered by social media.

What has changed is that technologies have dropped the entry-level for publishing or talking. The barriers have dropped so low, that everybody can potentially be a media outlet of both the conversational and broadcast kind. Often whether they become conversationalists or broadcasters depend on their talent.

As we explained in a previous post social media is not new. In the past we also had forms of so called interactive or two-way media; your phone is a good example of two-way media.
Still, conference calls, with its potential for multi-way communication, only form a minute part of telecommunications. That’s because conversations don’t scale well.

But why then the success of Facebook, who just surpassed Google in the US in terms of usage? Because conversations are only a part of Facebook’s picture.

Technology has allowed companies like Flickr, Facebook and Youtube to provide services where users can share stuff. Facebook has been particularly good in turning even the smallest bit of activity on its platform into content, i.e. its Personal News Feed. I ‘friend’ somebody, you find out about it because you’re my friend.

Jeff Jarvis calls it ‘the wisdom of my crowd’. Sam Leith calls it ‘the Reuters of inanity’. Fact is that the stronger the bonds of friendship, the more likely I am to engage with your ‘content’. And like conversations, friendships don’t scale.

Still, everybody has friends – and the most inane thing a friend has done is often more interesting to them than Gordon Brown’s bullying.
This is one of the key differences between Twitter and Facebook. Twitter is asymmetrical. There is no requirement of mutual friending. And the result is that Twitter allows for broadcasting, on top of ‘conversations’. Facebook is now trying to change its feed to be more Twitter-like, with mixed success.

This difference explains why Twitter is not as big as Facebook. Like with blogs, only a small percentage of the population have the drive to say something ánd make it so interesting that it goes down with a faceless audience. As Tom Anderson, founder of MySpace said, if you have a thousand friends, you’re broadcasting, you’re an entertainer.

The problem for broadcasters, and with I mean all broadcasters, is that, unless we’re talking mass live events, their ‘content’ will rarely match a person’s love to natter with their buddies. AT&T is still a much larger company than Google or Time Warner in terms of revenue. The world’s big telco companies dwarf the media, computer and entertainment companies in terms of revenue. Simply because people spend a huge amount of money on their phones.

Which brings me back to my original point. I rarely follow people on Facebook I don’t know or want to know. I don’t normally expect people I follow on Twitter to follow me back. I rarely follow people on Twitter that follow more people than they have following them (I immediately think they don’t have much of interest to say). I don’t get excited if somebody follows me on Twitter that follows a 1000+ other people? What’s the chance they’ll see what I’m Tweeting? What’s the chance I’ll be retweeted?

That’s why for me, the perfect follower follows 300 people while 10,000 follows them. I.e. they get little input but puts out to a lot of people.

There are a number of tools that measure your value on Twitter, like Edelman’s Tweetlevel. Tweetlevel says it measures an individual’s importance on:

  • Influence – what you say is interesting and many people listen to it. This is the primary ranking metric.
  • Popularity – how many people follow you
  • Engagement – you actively participate within your community
  • Trust – people believe what you say

Note: It does not take into account the difference between your input and output. Klout is in my opinion the superior tool for discovering valuable Twitter users because it uses the principles I explain above.

Klout says it looks for:

  • True Reach – our count of the number of followers we believe actually read and are impacted by the majority of your tweets.
  • Network score – Measurement of the weighted influence of the people who have retweeted, @ mentioned, followed and listed your account.
  • The Amplification Score – a 0 to 100 number representing a person’s ability to generate actions like retweets, @ replies, clicks, etc from their content.

Take this Twitter user. He has more followers than me (1,662 Following 1,819 Followers), yet his Klout score is 26. Mine is 37, I follow 308 and am followed by 540. This Twitter user almost beats me with a score of 35 but as is the habit with the conversation tribe, she is following 6,963 and has 6,867 followers. Jeff Jarvis’s Klout is 74.

Now Klout might not be perfect in its determination of Twitter influence, but it seems to be a lot closer to those that blindly count followers.

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  • Posted by Brian Whalley
    February 25, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Permalink


    I don’t think that I agree with you here – There are some celebrities that I like that have frequent conversations with some followers at random through Twitter. For example, writer and director Kevin Smith is famous for talking to his fans every day for at least an hour, if not more. He’s never replied to me personally or my questions, but I still really like following him because he replies to everyone else – I have the shared benefit of all of his responses to other fans asking him questions or commenting on his work.

    Thanks for the post though. You should add a comment on Twitter Grader as well at the end.

    Brian Whalley

    (Disclaimer: I work for HubSpot, the company that made Twitter Grader.)

  • February 25, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    I don’t deny that their are celebrities and others that do have conversations and that these do add real value, by making connections, energising people, getting information etc. But the resources for doing this is finite. Conversations are part of social media, but so is broadcasting.

    I will have a look at Twitter Grader.

  • February 26, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Hi Brian, I had a look at Twitter Grader, and read the post on how it works.

    It says: “1. Number of Followers: More followers leads to a higher Twitter Grade (all other things being equal). Yes, I agree that it’s easy to game this number, but we are looking at measuring reach and I did say all other things being equal.

    2. Power of Followers: If you have people with a high Twitter Grade following you, it counts more than those with a low Twitter Grade following you. It’s a bit recursive, and we don’t get carried away with it, but it helps.

    3. Updates: More updates generally leads to a higher grade — within reason. This does not mean you should be tweeting like a manic squirrel cranked up on caffeine and sugar. It won’t help either your Twitter Grade or your overall happiness in life.

    4. Update Recency: Users that are more current (i.e. time elapsed since last tweet is low) generally get higher grades.

    5. Follower/Following Ratio: The higher the ratio, the better. However, the weight of this particular factor decreases as the user accrues points for other factors (so, once a user gets to a high level of followers or a high level of engagement, the Follower/Following ratio counts less).

    6. Engagement: The more a given user’s tweets are being retweeted, the more times the user is being referenced or cited, the higher the twitter grade. Further, the value of the engagement is higher based on who is being engaged. If a user with a very high Twitter Grade retweets, it counts more than if a spammy account with a very low grade retweets.”

    I like the your interface, and like its simplicity and speed(although the speed of the calculation makes me suspicious – how do you so quickly return with knowlege of the follow rations of the people that follow me?).

    But I’m not sure your better than Klout. I have to say that point 5 and 6 strikes me at the the most important factors to take into account, and you put them last. Number 3 is just plan wrong, and number 1 is easy to game. Anybody can build their follower counts in no time.

    To take the user in the above example, you score the users marketingsus

    * Rank 31,085 out of 6,257,273
    * Followers 6,872
    * Following 6,968
    * Updates 2,959

    I however get ranked 260,000. http://twitter.grader.com/wildebees

    Sour grapes on my part? I think not. I think your just concentrating on the wrong metrics.

    The difference between followers and following is key. Even Chris Brogan recognizes that now and is unfollowing thousands.

  • Posted by edward boches
    March 5, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    That’s why there’s Tweetdeck. Plenty of argument that the small gesture of following back someone who flatters you with a follow is the right thing to do. And of course you can’t really pay attention to thousands. But you can easily filter with tools like the deck. As Clay Shirky said years ago — in fact he wrote a very similar section in Here Comes Everybody talking about internet celebrity — it’s not about an abundance of content, it’s about having the right filtering systems. Personally, I don’t follow everyone for the simple reason that I HATE AUTO DMS. If people didn’t use them I’d follow all back. Instead I follow those who engage, share and add value. Then filter my must follows via lists and Tweetdeck. As for Facebook, that’s another story all together. As they get less focused on what they were originally and try to mirror Twitter, they simply water themselves down, despite all the members they have. One more thing. This is the best way to connect: blogs, comments, dialog, real interaction.

  • March 5, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Hi Edward, were super pleased to get a comment from you. You say:

    ‘Plenty of argument that the small gesture of following back someone who flatters you with a follow is the right thing to do.’

    Well yes, but especially if they think they are actually going into a meaningful relationship, and not relegated to an neglected column in Tweetdeck I think.

    People seem to be following others to be polite or to encourage them to follow you in turn. All of which seem to me a distortion of the real worth of certain Twitter users’ ‘content’.

    I agree with you on the best way to connect, little beats considered comments on blogs and real interaction.

  • March 11, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    This article also ties in with this post, bit from another angle.

    ‘Twitter users not so social after all’


  • Posted by Jonnie Jensen
    October 22, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Bloody good post Wessel. Bloody good.

2 Trackbacks

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    Why might someone want to follow 1,000+ people on Twitter?... There are two main drivers why people follow so many people. The one is ego. People (rightly) believe that they will get followers if they follow back. There are a few myths in social media - and this explains the other reason why people follow 1000 pl...

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