One of the most interesting and sensational aspects of Twitter are its mega accounts: Twitter accounts with huge numbers of followers. These days mega accounts have anywhere from 1 million to 3 million followers, but in the future they will boast much larger followings. Is a Twitter account with 10 million followers around the corner? Absolutely! How about 100 million or more? But as with many things in life, it isn’t just size that matters. What is the use of millions of followers if most of them are not really listening? Its not just quantity that matters, it is also quality. In the last few months Singularity Hub has had the privilege of having its stories retweeted by three mega Twitter accounts, accounts with roughly 1,000,000 followers. What have we learned about the power, or lack thereof, of these massive Twitter accounts and what does it all mean for the future of the Twitter communication paradigm?
In the last few months @techcrunch (1,000,000+ followers), @tonyrobbins (1,323,000+ followers), and @timoreilly (1,087,000+ followers) have each retweeted one of our stories. So what came of these massive tweets? Did enormous numbers of followers read the tweet and subsequently follow the link to our story here at Singularity Hub? The answer, at least to us, has been a surprising disappointment. After reviewing our traffic logs we can attribute no more than 5,000 hits to our site from any one of these mega account tweets (this includes hits from retweets as well!). From an account of roughly 1,000,000 followers no more than 5,000 of those followers, or roughly one half of a percent of them, are likely to click on the tweet. In our experience 5,000 would actually be on the upper limit considering retweets were involved, with about 3,000 being more likely.
One might also expect that being picked up by a major account such as @tonyrobbins might result in large numbers of new followers following your own Twitter account. But again the truth is disappointing. Our data shows that getting retweeted by a mega account only results in perhaps a few dozen new followers to your own Twitter account.
How can we explain that such a low number of supposed followers actually read and click through on the information in a tweet? There are several contributing factors to explain this, but here are what I think are the major ones:
1. Large numbers of these followers aren’t really followers at all
Many of these so called followers are robot accounts automatically following all sorts of Twitter accounts. Other followers are real people, but they are following so many different Twitter accounts that they don’t really tune in seriously to most or all of their incoming tweets. For whatever reason, either they are using their account for self promotion rather than to get information or they have long given up on using their account, lots of followers are simply ghosts with nobody there to actually read the tweet.
2. Even dedicated followers will click on a small number of tweets
Even when counting the followers that are true, dedicated followers that really want to read the tweets, statisically speaking we can only expect these followers to click on maybe 10% of the tweets they see. It is just not practical that all or most of the tweets will be of sufficient interest for a real follower to click on them and read them to their fullest. When we go to a newspaper, or a blog, or a Twitter feed, we don’t read every single story. We skim through the list of choices and only focus on the one or two stories out of dozens in the data feed that interest us the most, then we move on to the rest of our lives.
Despite all of the hype and excitement around Twitter we can see that Twitter is currently a very low penetration medium for distributing information. Mega accounts with more than 1,000,000 followers aren’t nearly the powerhouses over people’s information lives that many of us may have expected them to be. But before we call the game over and discount Twitter and its mega accounts we need to consider that things can – and will – change.
The Twitter service is just in its infancy and we can expect the information paradigm that it represents to evolve rapidly and significantly in the coming years. In fact focusing only on Twitter the company is too short sighted of a way to look at all of this. Twitter is a company, but the paradigm of sending short messages of information to legions of followers who can then re-send those messages (ie retweet them) to others is a theme that is bigger than the company itself. Twitter the company may come and go, succeed or fail, but the paradigm itself will live on and evolve. Even now an entire ecosystem of thousands of companies is building up around not just Twitter, but around the idea of the realtime exchange of bits of information.
In the coming years, whether it be on the Twitter platform or some other framework from another company, or even from a distributed open source collective , we can expect many of the major problems with today’s Twitter to be solved. For one thing, we can expect that there will indeed be massive Twitter accounts whose followers are much more committed to absorbing the information beyond the 0.5% witnessed today. Take for example official government Twitter accounts in which perhaps the entire citizenry of a nation can be expected to read a tweet that is critical to national security, pride, or interest. Would more than 0.5% of citizens in the United States follow and then read the tweet of a government sponsored account meant to distribute breaking news of terrorist threats or viral outbreaks? I think so.
Not only can we expect certain accounts to have more dedicated followers, but we can expect tools to manage the overwhelming stream of information coursing into our lives- tweets, blogs, feeds, images – to become more sophisticated and efficient at helping us to sort through all of the mess. The most important and relevant information to each of us will bubble up above the rest. Information more and more will be disseminated to the right people who actually care about that information enough to click on it and read it. This contrasts strongly with today’s situation in which we are overwhelmed with huge streams of information that are too massive and diverse to manage effectively.
Information is coming at us from every direction at levels far beyond normal human capacity to absorb. And yet even as tools get better at helping us to deal with today’s information overload, the influx of new information into our lives will only multiply even further, making the problem ever more difficult to manage. Paradigm shifts in information access and management are happening ever faster to compensate. Are Twitter mega accounts and Twitter itself already a dying paradigm in this ever evolving race, or are Twitter and its mega accounts going to maintain or even increase their relevance by evolving along with everything else?