Is Twitter a Conversation or Broadcast Platform?

Are we seeing the Twitterverse through rose colored glasses?

In January 2009 I pondered whether or not Twitter was a viable conversation platform. After all, Twitter is one of the darlings of Social Media and it is conversations and the democratization of content that fuel the rapid expansion and adoption of social tools and services.

Just ask any social media “expert” and they’ll tell you that you must absolutely establish a Twitter account and commence the process of responding to everyone who Tweets about your company, market, or competition. But the more I observe interaction on social networks, and in the this case Twitter, I believe that sometimes it’s effective to also maintain a presence simply by reading, listening, and sharing relevant and timely information without yet having to directly respond to each and every tweet – perhaps replying to only the critical or influential individuals that may need immediate information or direction to steer strategic activity.

Before you react, continue reading. Observations are just that, but there are numbers now surfacing that continue to reinforce my examination. Is Twitter a conversation or broadcast platform? Perhaps it’s both. I’d also interject that it’s also a listening platform – for the majority of users who use Twitter to garner insight and information without necessarily sharing updates on their account.

As Twitter continues to elicit discussions on its cultural and interpersonal impact, in-depth analysis reveals that perhaps Twitter isn’t currently a pervasive platform for hosting conversations at all. And as Nielsen suggests, with only a 40% retention rate, it may not be growing as fast as we believe either. As a comparison, during the important stages of defining growth for MySpace and Facebook, retention averaged 70%.

Yet everywhere you turn, Twitter is regarded as the catalyst for people flocking to engage in the proverbial “conversation” that is so vital to fostering vibrant online communities between peers and also brands and consumers.

At a micro level, Twitter is indeed significant. The unique, loyal, and revolutionary culture and behavior it’s inducing may well ignite macro reverberations that ultimately effect how we discover, share, and consumer information. In the long-term, it will at the very least, influence human interaction, business services, information dissemination, events, and also media in general.

Just in the past week, Twitter was Time Magazine’s cover story “How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live.” Sports Illustrated also documented how Twitter is “Rapidly Changing the Face of Sports.”

This (r)evolution will take time to cross the bell curve of adoption however.

Comscore recently reported that in April, 32 million people around the world visited Twitter.com, sending the micro-community surging past NYTimes.com, Digg, and LinkedIn.

Indeed, statistical exploration indicates Twitter is growing in prominence. But, perhaps its importance, at this moment in time, is more closely aligned with a powerful, new, and seemingly engaging one-way broadcasting ecosystem rather than a two-way dialogue channel we initially suspected.

As observed in a recent Harvard Business Report, the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. In correlation, the top 10% of users in other typical social networks account for 30% of all content production. Harvard crystallizes the gravity of this metric though a parallel comparison of Twitter and Wikipedia, “To put Twitter in perspective, consider an unlikely analogue – Wikipedia. There, the top 15% of the most prolific editors account for 90% of Wikipedia’s edits.”

The Harvard study also noted that among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is “one.” This equates to over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every ~74 days.

According to an analysis of seven million Twitter accounts conducted by Purewire and presented to TechCrunch, 80% of Twitter accounts have fewer than 10 followers and 30% have zero followers.

Purewire documented Twitter activity by number of followers, followings, and Tweets:

Followers
Accounts with 0 followers: 29.4%
Accounts with 1 to 9 followers: 50.9%
Accounts with 10 or more followers: 19.7%

Followings
Accounts following 0 people: 24.4%
Accounts following 1 to 9 people: 43.4%
Accounts following 10 or more people: 32.2%

Tweets
Accounts with 0 Tweets: 37.1%
Accounts with 1 to 9 Tweets: 41.0%
Accounts with more 10 or more Tweets: 21.9%

As TechCrunch notes, 1/4 of all Twitter accounts are not following anybody and more than 1/3 have not posted a single Tweet. Of active accounts, which PureWire defines as those possessing more than 10 followers, 10 followings, and 10 tweets, 63.6% follower more people than they have followers and only 2.8% maintain an equal number of followers and followings.

This is not unlike content production and consumption behavioral patters across the Social Web however. Looking at Forrester’s 2008 Technographics data, a vast majority of people are merely spectators with less than one quarter actively publishing any content anywhere.

Forrester also segments online engagement and participation by analyzing the actions of individuals who populate the Social Web. They’re labeled as Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners, Spectators, Inactives.

Right now, Twitter and its potential for progress is limited only by the information, direction, and education provided by Twitter itself in order to demonstrate and teach existing and new users how to truly use and take advantage of this new and dynamic information ecosystem. While Twitter’s API is empowering third-party developers to create Twitterverse of exciting, useful, and entertaining applications that enhance the Twitter experience, it can not outsource nor rely upon the community to teach the world how to use Twitter. Providing recommendations on people to follow doesn’t really help at all.

In the meantime, Twitter will continue to flourish as a rapid-fire broadcast network until people learn how to communicate, understand how to participate and what to contribute, and eventually ease into a collaborative, two-way meaningful dialogue that represents Twitter’s greatest promise.


Source

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  • Linda VandeVrede

    This post made me think more deeply about how I perceive Twitter. In retrospect, it isn't quite the conversation platform that FB is. Many of the people tweeting seem to do it with self importance, whereas FB is more conversational. This could be where the gender differences (men use twitter more) come into play. I have had a few conversations on twitter, but for the most part I use it for information – finding links to articles and data I might not otherwise have found. FB in contrast is useful for starting conversations.

  • steveseager

    Great post Brian. Fantastic info and spot on analysis.

    As I too suspected, it appears that Twitter is actually a mix of conversation and broadcast – mainly from two perspectives:

    1. Conversation platform for one-on-one engagement for direct response (as my client http://twitter.com/spottedbylocals does) Bart uses Twitter to find conversations relevant to his service and answers each and everyone personally.

    2. Broadcast platform to follow and track 'top 10%' you identify. This could be competitors, thought leaders, or other professionals that are of value to yourself and your business.

    I guess the key in determining the value of Twitter as a channel is exactly the same as any other channel – who do you need to listen/engage with, where are they, and what do they do on that channel.

    From there you can decide on your communications strategy.

    Thanks again for such a great post!

    Steve Seager

  • Kat Meyer

    As I just now twittered that I need to be better about commenting on blog posts, I am going to do just that.

    I like this post. I love the research and statistics. I think Twitter is a conversation when done right. And, sometimes the most valuable part of conversation is skilled listening.

    Check out Umair Haque's post at Harvard Biz Blog: "Twitter's 10 Rules 4 Radical Innovators" http://bit.ly/fNDvD as he puts it quite brilliantly with among other things, the observation that, "Circuits beat channels."

    Read the comments following Umair's post, however, and you are presented with a nice bit of anecdotal evidence that not everyone is indeed "getting it," and you're right about the lengthy lag time for the(r)evolution to cross the bell curve of adoption.

    Back to the statistics for a second–yes, a lot of the people on Twitter may be spectators, but in my experience, the small group who are actively participating are not broadcasting, but are quite engaged in conversation.

    Again, that's just my experience. I run in a pretty vertical Twitter crowd of bookish tweeple who have a lot to say about the publishing industry (going through a (r)evolution of its own of late), and finding Twitter an incredibly useful platform on which to share information on everything from recommended reads to how to price ebooks.

    I think that on Twitter, the individual user (and/or the communities of users) define the level of conversation-or broadcast, as they choose. The value is definitely there if you look for it.

  • Linda Ziskind

    I think in our search for that magic bullet of communication, whether for personal or business use – we are too quick to slap constricting definitions on the technologies we use. In an interview I read earlier this year, Evan Williams and Biz Stone talked about how they first envisioned Twitter as a broadcast platform. These days you can't pick up a magazine or newspaper with reading about how Twitter is the relationship building conversation platform that is the holy grail to businesses. What is more interesting to me is not locking Twitter – or any other social media technology – into a single definition, but watching social media applications constantly define and reinvent their utility as people find new ways to utilize them in their lives. Yes, it's a floor wax AND a dessert topping (SNL Season 1, Episode 9)…and perhaps so much more.

  • Miguel

    The unfortunate reality is people want to label platforms based on what we know, not by its capabilities. Twitter will become what we make of it. Why can't Twitter be a product of both – conversation and Broadcast? Why does it have to one or the other?

    There are plenty of rationalizations to interpret the stats you highlight. The vast majority of people are trying to figure out how they want Twitter be a part of everyday lifeflow, not workflow.

    Although businesses need to take Twitter seriously, the truth is no business or marketer will be able to realistically understand the value until people decide how it fits in with their lifestyle. There is nothing that businesses can do to force how people use it either.

    Cheers,
    @contrapuntist

  • Ferg Devins

    Great provocation Brian. What I think I got really early on with Twitter was that it is what it is for the individual Twitterer and then those the decide to follow or not, to stay or bail, to retweet or block. It is a wonderful on line democratic forum. It's also obvious that some folks may want to broadcast messaging. Fact is, some may want to follow to hear those broadcasts, where others may decide that they want to be in a conversation and dialogue and don't appreciate the broadcast. That doesn't make either of the positions "wrong", it gives perspective to the reality of twitter…it is whatever people want it to be for them…what is the purpose for the Twitterer. I think this is also the key factor is people coming on and dropping off (if true), they don't have a purpose, they just heard that its popular. So…from my POV Twitter IS a Conversation or a Broadcast Platform or both. Cheers @MolsonFerg

  • Marko Saric

    Great article with a great overview of the different Twitter studies / research!

    For me it seems that the whole Ashton Kutcher / CNN / Oprah thing has created a culture of consuming / following on Twitter. Many just sign up and consume the tweets from celebrities, they are just there to follow their lives and not much about producing something or conversing with someone. This automatically creates the broadcast situation where many use it to broadcast messages.

    But in my own case, and in majority of cases, I believe that broadcasting works best along with conversing with people, building relationships, helping people out etc.

  • jan

    the problem about the nielsen study is that it ignores the fact that most people are using clients with twitter and afaik the study just looked at the website. i don't think it's valid at all.

  • Jesse Luna

    Interesting post Brian. Thanks for bringing all the research together.

    I think that Twitter can be either a conversation or a broadcast platform depending on how one uses it.

    If a user tunes in and follows big celebs or feeds that don't converse then it is a broadcast platform. If users tunes in to share information, enhance business development, play, or to have deep and transformative discussions then it is a conversation platform.

  • Mark D. Drapeau, Ph.D.

    When I wrote "Expand Your Twitter Base" (http://is.gd/RSfc) I commented that people should look at their last 40 tweets to see if they're generally interesting.

    People can use Twitter however they please. But many people using it for "conversation" are speaking 1:1 with someone, and saying things that are not generally interesting. (@myfriend OMG so funny!) There's no context, no proper nouns, no generality. There's nothing compelling that makes people want to follow you in that example.

    Twitter is used *most successfully* as a broadcast medium within which some content can be discussed in a general way. This is like a radio talk show host making statements and interviewing a guest, and then taking a few questions. If all he did was take phone calls from his friends and have brief "conversations" that would not be a hit show.

    Brands and popular people alike do not need to converse with everyone who asks, nor reply to every comment made about them. It's not clear that this approach has help Comcast any – they get some good blog stories and their hardware is still the source of heads banging against walls.

    What is far more valuable is for brands and people to provide information that they think is interesting and adds value to some audience, who can then comment on it. No one can effectively control who follows them on Twitter; thus, people will high followed/following ratios tend to be "popular" by definition. Unless they are truly famous, they are generally adding value to the mix, unlike many, as the statistics show (who have few followers and/or even ratios).

    Clay Shirky describes Wikipedia as "co-creation without collaboration." There, as with Twitter, very few people are responsible for the overwhelming majority of content development. While a wiki and microsharing are different, on Twitter maybe the 10% of people that contribute 90% of the tweets can be thought of as subject-matter experts who would write an entire Wikipedia page. Sure, some edits are made, some discussion ensues, but they are the "knowledge broadcasters" and the other 90% of people are the gardeners and readers. And there's nothing wrong with any of that. In thoery, everyone is getting something out of the complex system.

  • phillipbaker

    Twitter can be used for conversation or broadcast or a combination of both. We all have a different Twitter experience based on how we choose to use it, how many people we follow, and how many people follow us (and what they're using it for). And we have some degree of control over all of those things.

    However, it might be possible to hold two- or many-way conversations with people if you have tens or hundreds or perhaps even thousands of followers. But, is that still possible for people with tens or hundreds of thousands of real followers? You might get a lot of inbound information/reactions/suggestions/gestures, but I'm not sure how feasible actual conversations are at that point. I don't know for sure because that's not my experience. But what happens when you cross the threshold? Maybe companies can add more resources to interact, but what about individuals? I think Twitter use can change over time and it might not all be within our control. For example, if you get a lot of re-tweets does that make it a broadcast?

    I've given up trying to define 'what it is' or 'what it's for' partly because there is no answer and even if there is it will continue to change. But, it's also because I'm not sure answering that question really gets us anywhere at this point.

    It's like trying to define what a telephone is for – is it for chatting with friends, finding out information, shopping, banking, networking, sales? It's used for all of the above.

    Andrew McAfee wrote a nice post in April listing attributes of Twitter that I think is a more useful approach to analyzing Twitter: http://andrewmcafee.org/blog/?p=749

    But outside of that, this blog has become a social media must-read for me over the last few months. I really like what you're putting out here, Brian!

    Phil

    • http://twitter.com/Ovurmind Viktor Ovurmind

      There must be a law of diminishing returns as to our ability to maintain a web of relationships. The Dunbar number is interesting http://www.lifewithalacrity.com/2004/03/the_dun… because it seems to be a reasonable assumption.

      [v.o.M.]

  • Robert B. Vellani

    Thanks for the very useful insight. I re-posted at on my Twitter and FB. Kids are the missing link in the analysis. MySpace and Facebook are image and foto driven. They are more fun for less verbal/scribal kids. Twitter is more idea and information driven. Kids Im via phone, not on twitter. The three sites have some key difference.

  • adrian chan

    Brian,

    It might be a good time for some of us to define "conversation!" Or, if not to produce a strict definition, to at least establish some degrees of conversation.

    I've seen it described as "agreement," "consensus," or an "exchange." These capture the exchange of ideas, information, or claims made in the act of talking.

    Some describe it in terms of a situation involving interaction. Conversation being a performance and engagement, collaborative and non-conflictual: regardless of what's being talked about.

    And some i think mean to describe an interactive improvement over broadcast media: conversation is two-way messaging, flat, open, democratic, etc…

    Newcomers of course may have preconceptions of what conversational tools are for, only to be disappointed by the fact that two-way messaging, or talking in 140 characters, or racing after followers (etc) can be decidedly non-conversational! So are there new kinds of conversation, unique to the tools and how they're used, worth defining? So as to better set expectations, guide and suggest uses and approaches, and measure results?

    Might be worth a stab.

  • Beata Wickbom

    Hi Brian!
    Beata the moderator from Stockholm here. I agree with Linda Ziskind and @contrapuntist, do you have to define the format of microblogging as of June 2009? Why would that be necessary? If we had defined eg Flickr as a personal online photo management tool, and only that, and given instructions to users, we wouldn't see all the communities of interest that flourish within Flickr. Nor would we think of it as a travel planner, the way Flickr Places has evolved.

    One more question regarding conversations. I think blogs are great for conversations, but do you think that we should have commented on this article on Twitter as well? I don't see how that would add extra value? If we could extend the conversation to Twitter, what aspects do you believe would benefit from the larger audience of Twitter?

  • Melissa DelGaudio

    Hiya Brian! Great post, as always; lots of food for thought here. But, as @contrapuntist said above, regardless of what the statistics say, Twitter (or Facebook, or any other application, for that matter) is what WE make of it. Sure, there are plenty of people out there who are just dipping their toes in the water, and that's just fine. There are plenty of people, though, who ARE listening and who ARE actively joining in the conversation.

    In my world, Twitter is many things. It's a tool for following voices I respect and from which I can learn. It's for garnering information to which I might not have had access or of which I was unaware. It's a way to engender a reputation of my own. AND it's an always constant source of amusement. I read, I listen, I reply — sometimes — retweet that which seems of value, work to help my own clientele … and I enjoy myself in the process.

    I don't think it can — or should — be labeled as one thing or the other.

  • Rachel Kay

    Great compilation of statistics here. I understand the best we can do is to compare adoptions rates to those of other social networks like Linkedin and Facebook but it’s important to remember it isn’t apples to apples. Facebook serves primarily as a place to interact with old classmates, “real life” friends and family. Twitter seems to link people with common careers objectives and interests who don’t necessarily know each other in the real world. Just like at a bar, it’s much easier to hang out and chat with people you already know. It takes a little more time to identify commonalities and engage in discussion with people you haven’t met yet. Maybe once people start to mingle a little more there will be more significant participation and growth. In addition, it appears that the most prolific users have some vested interest in communication, social media, marketing or some business/brand function etc… Perhaps it stays as a happy hour for those people rather than opening up as wide as a MySpace or Facebook?

  • Regina

    I think Twitter serves many functions and, basically, it depends on who is using it. Some people or organizations are all about using it to blast information. It seems that right now, that's what people are doing with it. However, there are other uses too.

    I blog. I'm on other social networks. I'm finally back in the States after living years abroad, so I'm using all the forms of social networking to help me find work and networking is key to that.

    I use Twitter to listen to what others are saying, but I also send out a fair number of tweets. I retweet if I think information is interesting and useful. I've had people turn me on to job search sites and give me tips. I'm following companies that I'm interested in working for. However, I also have frequent conversations with people I know too.

    I think some of it is gender, but a lot of it is comfort. I've been on the net for years. I'm really comfortable with the Internet and Web 2.0. I think as more people learn and get comfortable these numbers will shift. However, there will always be a group of people who are more comfortable lurking and just watching.

  • Anonymous

    You spent alot of time on this and it certainly shows.

    Thanks for all the input and clarity and charts. Annette Aaron

  • Mervyn Alamgir

    Brian, thanks for the stats and analysis of Twitter as a communication app. I could see Twitter at one time being used more for conversation, probably up until mid/late 2008. Much of what helped Twitter succeed was also an implicit trust between the friend and follower. I would guess that the friend/follower ratio was much closer to 1:1 than it is today.

    The addition of celebrities, media and spammers has revealed Twitter to be more of a pseudo-megaphone. Recent attempts at using Twitter for phishing scams have eaten away at the trust aspect. There is also a pressure for brands to show ROI through involvement in Twitter. All of these aspects have pushed the conversation aspect of twitter to be a much smaller percentage of its overall use (my assumption).

    Blogs have been a better forum for conversation for me, although not 'real-time' like Twitter but containing much more thoughtful expression than you can capture in 140 characters. Twitter has been great at getting recommendations for new blog posts to read, like this one, and talking real-time about experiences.

    Twitter will continue to be used for both conversation and broadcasting, but it will be interesting to see how much of Twitter's product roadmap is geared towards enabling one versus the other.

  • guruvan

    I have to agree with Mark above. "Twitter is used most successfully as a broadcast medium"

    I find it much more useful to broadcast thoughts, ideas, links, links to comments, and announcements (of blog posts etc) than to try to engage in conversation on Twitter.

    Twitter works ok for quick exchanges, quick answers to requests for information, and even a little "chitter-chatter". But does it lend itself to the extended conversations that I find elsewhere? Not at all. I much prefer FriendFeed for that, and Facebook provides a sort of a happy in-between the two.

    This will all become much more obvious as the Google Wave (and the related products based on their source code) come into public usage. As we see Twitter be primarily relegated to link broadcasting, and low-tech mobile usage.

    Unfortunately for Twitter, their insistence on not using their service as a company, not innovating, and not paying attention to the ways that people use their product will finally come around and bite them in the end. As I've said many times, they should have sold when the offers were on the table, because they're likely to lose by having waited for their $1billion mark. It's even more unfortunate given all of this that @biz & @ev continue to think that they'll be running the company still in 5 years. That seems a sure sign of stagnation to have the original founders running the company when they aren't superstars like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and the like. And successful as they may be, they're no superstars.

    To it's credit, Twitter has brought us firmly into a new realm and era of realtime communications. One that shows us the importance of companies (brands) participating in the conversations. Alas, it doesn't offer the medium for them to really do so effectively. Broadcasting is not "brand management" and it's certainly not following the trend toward non-interruptive marketing, and consumer lead marketing. It has show companies the need for those tools though. And it has shown us how fast news can "go viral" and the consequences (good and bad) of it doing so. Twitter, however lacks the ability for a company to put substance behind it's rebuttal to and "twitstorm" that may brew after a public gaff (like the #amazonfail debacle)

    It really will take the "next new shiny object" to bring us into the era of true conversations of the multitudes with the multitudes; conversations that allow companies to actually engage with their customers in public.

  • Anonymous

    Twitter can easily be both at the same time. http://Www.Twitter.com/The_Pub_Debates is designed to both inform (brodcast) and engage people in thought provoking debate.

  • Bob

    I have to agree with the anonymous comment. I think Twitter — like all of these tools — can and is both simultaneously.

    One of the things I love about social media is that tools become useful because of what the USERS do with 'em.

    It's up to twitterers to decide what the medium becomes – that could be anything from a flash-in-the-pan (Second Life?) to a daily essential (RSS, Facebook).

  • Teri Schindler

    Nice post. I side with the broadcast platform argument – at least right now – partly because of the functionality of the site.

    But, as Berners-Lee says (and who am I to argue?), we don't fully understand the web anymore:
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20227111.400-tim-bernerslee-i-no-longer-understand-the-web.html

    Perhaps it's in an evolutionary stage that favors broadcast for the moment.

  • Rita

    Brian, thanks for providing more 'food for thought'. Interestingly, I'd just been wondering about how 'conversational' Twitter actually is. While I do believe it 'can easily be both' as anonymous said, I do think that right now it's more 'broadcast' than 'conversation' platform.

    I'm new to Twitter – a month or so new – and avoided it for over a year because I just didn't get the value. I was still wondering how anyone could be so ego-centric as to think that their every move was of interest to anyone. LOL!

    Since joining Twitter, I have found it be an incredibly useful tool. I'm a voracious information hound and am passionate about learning. The folks I follow provoke thought, provide great information and resources, connect me to some very interesting, knowledgeable and thoughtful people, blogs and websites and not least of all, are entertaining.

    And while I have engaged in conversations, I was surprised by how much more 'broadcast' than 'conversation' it is. Could this also be a reflection of my 'Titter-age' and therefore also a reflection of the how young (in Twitter years) the majority of people on Twitter are? …sort of like infants who need to learn to communicate/speak before they can engage in a conversation. The conversation happens only after much observation, listening and a whole lot of babbling ;-).

    On a separate but related note, the other thing that I've wondered about is whether our conversations are limited geographically. Are we North Americans following and conversing beyond our borders? If not, Twitter again would be more similar to the broadcast model where most of us (at least in Canada and the U.S.) watch television and listen to radio programming and news that originates from our own respective countries of origin. If so, and I'm guessing that it is, what a missed opportunity to widen the discourse.

    Brian, thanks again for the post and for sparking the conversation.

    Rita Ferrari

  • Dave Fleet

    Great post – and a fascinating analogy of top Twitter users to the editors on Wikipedia.

    This leaves me with the question actually posed in your title – is Twitter a conversation, or is it becoming a broadcast tool for the top users, with the silent majority just consuming (or leaving)?

    Part of the beauty of the tool is that you can make it what you want it to be – if you just want to communicate with your friends, then you can. If you want to connect with companies, you can. If you want to learn from those in your industry then (depending on the industry) you can.

ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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