Why Twitter is hard to use

Oscar Berg

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Keywords: Twitter, enterprise 2.0, Social software

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Have you ever wondered why so few of the people who have registered a Twitter account actually use Twitter on a regular basis?  According to a survey by ExactTarget:“Amongst the estimated 26 million monthly Twitter users online in 2010, there are very few who log on and tweet every day. Those that do are generally also highly active across the social internet.”

There are of course many different reasons why there are so relatively few active Twitter users. I can think of several; some people don’t find it useful, some don’t have time to tweet, some don’t find it interesting, and so forth. A lot of people probably just followed the crowd and registered a Twitter account out of curiosity, and then they didn't know what to do or why. Which leads me to something I believe is a significant reason why there are so few active Twitter users:
Twitter is hard to use.
Now wait a minute, that can’t be right…anybody can see that Twitter is easy to use. You just have to enter text in a text box and click on a button. This means that if you can write, you can also tweet. 
But that is where we deceive ourselves; just because something is technically easy to use doesn't mean that it is conceptually easy to use, or that it is easy to use in a useful way
When it comes to making useful use of Twitter - making it practically benefit you -that is something quite hard. It takes a purpose. It takes effort and time. It takes motivation, commitment and perseverance. As often as not, it takes passion.
Paradoxically, the things that make Twitter conceptually hard to use are also its main strengths and which makes it so powerful for those who become able to master it. It has all the characteristics that social software has according to Andrew McAfee – it’s freeform, frictionless in contribution, and emergent.
This means that there are innumerable of ways to use Twitter. Even though patterns of typical uses have emerged, they are not made explicit. There are not many handrails to cling to for Twitter novices. When you register a Twitter account, you get virtually no guidance or advice on how to use it at all. There are no explicit rules that tell you how it should and should not be used.  
This is also the point with Twitter – it’s up to its users to define how it shall be used. Depending on how you choose to see it, the responsibility (load) or freedom (opportunity) to decide how to use Twitter is on you
Since childhood we have all been trained to conform and fit in. We have been taught that we should follow the rules, that every question has one exact and correct answer, that imitating (copying) what other people do is a way to learn and be successful. As a result, most of us expect guidance, rules, structure before we do anything when we encounter new situations which we yet haven't a program for. If we don’t get that, we get anxious and don’t know what to do. So we rather don’t do anything.
In fact, many people find it easier to use an enterprise application than social software. In most enterprise applications, the tasks and the structure and order of execution is defined upfront. Users can follow step-to-step instructions where in each step whatever they are instructed to do is validated against predefined business rules. 
My hypothesis is that majority of the people who join Twitter find it hard to use Twitter in a useful way, and that many of them lack the curiosity, motivation, commitment, perseverance and passion which is needed to figure out how to use it in a useful way. It’s not a coincidence that Twitter (and other social media) attracts and have been most embraced by curious, creative, open-minded, engaged, rule-breaking, artistic, smart and sometimes anarchistic people (which is why I find it such a incredible place to hang out). You don’t find that many compliance-seeking people (those who don’t like to question status quo and who don’t dare to break new grounds) among in active Twitter user population. It’s only logical that many compliance-seeking people take every chance they get to question the value of platforms such as Twitter; they want to keep it out of their comfort zone. Twitter is not just something new and alien to them, but something they have problems to understand how to use for their own benefit. And if they can’t, how could possibly other people?
Now, replace “Twitter” in the text above with your enterprise social software of choice and read it again. :-)
If your organization has introduced social software such as a micro-blogging platform and the participation after some time organic grass-root adoption is something like the 90-9-1 principle, then you should be really worried. Why? Because the subjects discussed and things exchanged via such a platform should touch and engage everybody within your organization. They (should) all share the same purpose. In addition, if your organization aspires to be an industry leader, it should have more people from the creative class – people who naturally find a micro-blogging platform useful. So if it turns out that only 1% of the workforce contributes, you most likely have got to few of these people.

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Sandy Darmowinoto

"curious, creative, open-minded, engaged, rule-breaking, artistic, smart and sometimes anarchistic people" = dominated by people of adolescent years . I love Facebook but I do find it hard to use Twitter, maybe I just need more practice in order to make full use of this simple technology.
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Veronique Palmer

What a great article. The original piece was brilliant, then I replaced Twitter with SharePoint and it became even better. A cleverly written article, well done.
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This post and comment(s) reflect the personal perspectives of community members, and not necessarily those of their employers or of AIIM International