The Twitter Paradox

There’s an old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Twitter is a paradox that redefines that old saying to, “If it’s broke, don’t fix it, because it works.”

For all intents and purposes, Twitter shouldn’t work, yet 200 million people (and bots) have created accounts in this thriving information egosystem. Now, news no longer breaks, it Tweets. Celebrities use it daily to connect directly with fans and also augment their income streams. Politicians and governments use Twitter to communicate with constituents and one another. Everyday people rely on Twitter to find information and share experiences. And for those more “influential” Twitter users, connectedness pays off in the form rewards, recognition, and compensation.

Twitter has evolved into a human seismograph that channels the pulse of business, politics, entertainment, news, and culture into the mobile phones and PCs and defines of our connected society. Twitter is a public confessional where screens become the window to self-expression, validation, recognition, with each contributing to a digital form of self confidence. And it is this new assurance that guides our actions in the real world. I Tweet therefore I am…whatever I want to become.

Indeed, Twitter shouldn’t work, but it does. What started as a hybrid public messaging service meets social network, is now a flourishing information network where people connect and disconnect based on interests and fleeting moments of intellectual, sophomoric and parallel intimacy. As such, Twitter forces the evolution of social networking from social graphs to interest graphs, where people are not only connected to those they know, but also those who share their interests.

While it’s often chided for its ability to assemble and syndicate irrelevant, irresponsible, and questionable activity, Twitter excels in aligning relevance with those who understand how to filter streams to their advantage. And this is where things start to get interesting, as I don’t believe we’ve seen Twitter’s true impact on our digital and IRL culture.

Twitter’s Awareness vs. Adoption

The state of the Twitterverse is in flux. Capturing its shape, genetic makeup and direction is akin to measuring the development of a baby in a womb. It’s growing, quickly, and even though we know that a baby will arrive and grow into a human being, we never know exactly who this person will ultimately become nor can we be certain of its personality through each of the development stages.

Twitter’s challenge with awareness versus adoption has plagued the fledgling company since the beginning. One of the top Google searches for Twitter after all is “I don’t get Twitter.”

The Pew Internet & American Life Project announced in June 2011 that Twitter usage rose from 8% of US Internet users in Fall 2010 to 13% in May 2011. Representing an impressive 62% spike in adoption, many question the significance of the bump in its migration toward mainstream adoption. As eMarketer recently wrote, Twitter has a problem with Awareness vs. Usage.

Twitter’s awareness has greatly benefited from the nonstop media attention it receives due to controversial and high profile users. Citing Arbitron and Edison research, we see that 92% of consumers ages 12 and up are familiar with Twitter, but only 8% actually use it. According to this graph, Twitter has an adoption problem. In contrast, Facebook adoption ranks at 57.1% of internet users as stated by eMarketer.

As we know, numbers don’t lie. eMarketer also projects that Twitter advertising revenues will soar from $140 million in 2011 to $225 million in 2012.  In contrast, the once bursting place for friends, MySpace, will generate $184 million in ad revenue this year. As such, Twitter is focusing on improving (and defining) the user experience with Jack Dorsey rejoining the fold. And the company is building a sizable sales force. But even at this moment, Twitter has a model it can sell against. Since the launch of its Promoted products line, Twitter has worked with 600 advertisers on 6,000 campaigns. Twitter’s director of revenue Adam Bain puts things into perspective for optimists and skeptics alike, “Eighty percent of those marketers come back and buy from us again.”

Now, the cost of a Promoted Trends on Twitter has jumped from $100,000 to $120,000 per day. Promoted Accounts and Promoted Tweets are auction-based and a self-service model is due to arrive before the end of the year. Bain suggests that Twitter provides higher engagement levels that outperform not only traditional digital advertising products, but also Facebook ads.

In an interview with ClickZ, Bain reinforced the value of Promoted Products, “Paying $4 for a follower is a pittance because the ROI is insane. Because again once they have a follower, they can keep marketing to that guy as many times as they want without worrying about where they are across the web or what kind of mindframe they’re in.”

Certainly this is no mistake, but it is something that again, wasn’t anticipated. Attention has migrated to the stream and as we’re learning, that while money doesn’t grow on trees, it does in fact grow on Tweets.

Recently Mark Suster wrote about how the future of advertising will be integrated. In his post, Suster shared work by usability guru Jakob Nielsen that shows through heat maps where our eyes are focused.  Attention zeroes in on text and not the banners around it, thus introducing an era of banner blindness.

And in social media, banner blindness is equally prevalent. Facebook Ads sell against interests and people you know. Twitter sells products that appear within your line of sight – the stream, your new attention dashboard.

The Twitter Paradox is fascinating to study. I don’t believe mainstream adoption is a metric that matters to Twitter or to those who understand its benefits. Surely mass adoption is important to investors. But as a human network, we make the world a much smaller place, creating a global culture that connects people to information and events as they happen. And, through a stroke of fate or democratized serendipity, people effect how information travels and how events unfold. But at a minimum, Twitter has become an infinite well of incredible insight and intelligence and for that, it is already an indispensable service to businesses, governments, educators, and anyone who is impacted by the words and impressions of others.

Connect with Brian Solis on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook

The New ENGAGE!: If you’re looking to FIND answers in social media and not short cuts, consider either the Deluxe or Paperback edition

Get The Conversation Prism:

Image Credit: Shutterstock



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.

Contact Brian



  • The real future of marketing starts with putting your hands up and walking away for a minute.
  • "This isn’t a time to react. It’s a time to lead!” via
  • Brian Solis by @photo
  • Brian Solis by @photo