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Why do we tweet?

The expected calls came in today, albeit slightly later than you might hope. Two radio stations, one national, one local, asking for my input on the tenth anniversary of Twitter. For various reasons I didn’t end up doing either show, but it was enough to set me thinking more seriously about the subject than I might otherwise have done.

Given that thousands of people have doubtlessly posted blogs on the subject, I wasn’t planning to contribute another one to the pile. But this question seemed worth discussing: why do we tweet?

I mean this in both a very practical sense and more philosophically. Why do we tweet? You could answer that question with all manner of answers from biology and psychology: an innate need to communicate and participate? To establish our role in the group? I won’t pretend to know all the answers. This article does a good job of collecting some possibilities: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/september-2015/why-do-we-social-media

Whatever the answers, and I am sure there are many valid ones, we know that we do have a desire to use networks like Twitter. Social networks that I have always — since I was forced to think about it while preparing social media training sessions for businesses back in 2008 — defined as having three characteristics:

  • Connect: a shared address book, storing our contacts
  • Communicate: send messages, one-to-one or one-to-many
  • Share: attach media to our messages

All social networks share these features to a greater or lesser extent. So why do we choose to tweet?

I believe the answer lies partly in the particular combination of functions that Twitter offers, and partly in the community that has assembled around it.

The transparent nature of Twitter’s network and the dominant mode of use means that it is a great place for discovery. If you want to find someone, it is an effective directory of a certain class of individual.

This openness is also what makes it appeal to many of those people. It’s the reverse of the old Groucho Marx quote: the more productive and contributive Twitter users very much want to be a part of a club that will have them. And they don’t just want to be members, they want to achieve some status within the group.

This isn’t necessarily the narcissistic exercise it sounds. As mentioned above there’s the sense of attachment, but there’s also good commercial arguments. After all, Twitter is in most months the biggest driver of traffic to our website, and always of ‘relevant’ visitors — people we might be interested in selling to or partnering with.

Net contributors don’t make up the majority of Twitter users. But this doesn’t matter. Other users are still discoverable and their presence as a follower carries some weight.

Twitter is not on the financial uppers that some would suggest. But it is potentially in trouble. Because none of these ties are particularly binding: why would someone always choose to tweet if their social group moves platforms? Functionally it is easily replicated and we know that audiences are fickle.

My biggest concern in Twitter’s position would be the same as for LinkedIn: that it is replaced not by another commercial entity but by a set of standards for its most popular applications: hosting a discoverable and applicable profile, and facilitating messaging and sharing.

When such a thing exists, Twitter will need a very compelling answer to the question of why we tweet, in order to survive.

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Tom Cheesewright