Twitter needs to fix its big firehose problem

07 Oct

firehoseWith Twitter finally announcing its initial public offering last week, the countdown is officially on for the company to correct some of its long-simmering issues. With an IPO representing a sort of graduation for tech firms – where the nifty idea becomes the need for profitability – there’s not much time left to avoid them.

Twitter’s biggest problem is its large number of dormant accounts. While some estimates peg the number of total accounts at somewhere around a billion, the company reported in its filings last week that only 218 million were active in a given month. That’s a far cry from the 1.1 billion active users that Facebook reports.

Spambots are a bit of an issue for Twitter, but even their prevalence – which the company estimates at about 5 per cent of accounts – doesn’t account for the huge discrepancy between active and dormant users. The more likely culprit are lurkers, or users who look on but don’t necessarily participate in discussions, or people who try Twitter and ultimately become bored with it. In either case, the company’s problem lies in how to get these users more interested, or stay interested, since their participation goes a long way to determining how much advertising revenue can be generated.

As Josh Constine at TechCrunch writes, much of the problem is design-oriented. Twitter is very much a firehose that blasts a whole bunch of unfiltered information at users. And the more people they follow, the worse this becomes, to the point where their Twitter-feed is just one giant cacophony. Eventually, “your firehose is full, and it leads to two behaviors that are devastating to Twitter: You visit less and you stop following new people,” he writes.

I have to agree. There are ways to split the people you follow into groups, either with lists or additional apps, but those are too much trouble to manage. I’ve been meaning to go through the nearly-thousand people I follow and cull some, but really, who’s got time for that?

Twitter can thus end up as a major distraction for anyone who wants to maintain continuous thoughts. While Mathew Ingram over at GigaOm has argued that people have always found ways to distract themselves and waste time, perhaps by watching television, the reality is they’ve never had this sort of firehose effect before. A proper analogy to television might be where the individual watches hundreds of channels at the same time.

Individuals such as entrepreneur Adam Brault have written about how their Twitter-quitting experiences were highly valuable. Getting off it gave him a sense of peace and focus that he hadn’t felt in a long time, which he attributed partially to Dunbar’s number, or the subconscious cognitive limit to relationships theorized by anthropologist Robin Dunbar. “Mentally, we just aren’t capable of simultaneously empathizing with hundreds of people – let alone thousands or millions,” Brault wrote. “The result is we either build up a calloused, jaded, or cynical defense against empathy or find a way to block out more.”

Anecdotally, I have to agree. I’ve ironically found that the more followers I gain on Twitter, and conversely the more people I follow, the less I use it. While it’s a fantastic and necessary service for keeping up with what’s going on in the world, I’m finding that I’m just not able to focus and use Twitter at the same time.

There are a lot of people in that same boat, which is a clear and present problem for Twitter. If the company hopes to eventually achieve profitability, it’s going to have to figure out how to grow people’s engagement while at the same time keep them from becoming overwhelmed. That’s no small task.


Posted by on October 7, 2013 in Facebook, Twitter


3 responses to “Twitter needs to fix its big firehose problem

  1. Marc Venot

    October 7, 2013 at 12:57 am

    I guess it’s because we are not provided with the filters but I am sure a successful company like Red Bull for example have them.

  2. Nick Saveski

    October 7, 2013 at 4:33 am

    One reason why I’ve never followed more than 90 people and struggle to keep it closer to 80 or less. :\

    Twitter’s a medium where I want to interact with people, and what’s the point of following anyone who I never interact with or who never interacts with me? One reason I rarely follow celebs, and generally then only ones who do weird, informational/interesting or funny things that I don’t care to interact with.


  3. Marc Venot

    October 9, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    Would Hootsuite (social media dashboard to manage and measure your social networks) help?

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