‘Can you give this a retweet?’ is a request I receive on a fairly regular basis. Indeed, I can retweet anything that so takes my fancy, but what is the point?
In the same way that Brunel’s Great Western Railway killed off the coaching trade and mechanisation forced thousands of Georgian agriculture labourers into unemployment, social media has been a game-changer in both media and business.
But has its importance been overstated?
I would not call myself a social media expert, but as a journalist I am authorised to understand how it works and its – perceived – importance. And, since I am exposed to it on an hourly basis, I have some troubling observations.
I follow about 2,000 users on Twitter, yet when I spool through my newsfeed, most of the grammatically absurd nonsense seems to come from companies seemingly desperate to sell me sunglasses or pension advice.
The actual people I choose to follow, like prominent journalists, athletes, and figures whom I find interesting are about as active as an overweight guest on The Jeremy Kyle Show.
Last year it was widely reported how the number of active Twitter users had fallen off a cliff – literally millions of users were hanging up their wings. This trend has continued, and the pattern is that it is people, rather than companies, who are switching off.
I am the only one in my group of 20 close friends who goes anywhere near Twitter – a telling statistic. They all say the same thing: “Too many ads, can’t be bothered with it.” As a journalist I feel obliged to carry on with it, yet get little satisfaction from doing so.
So what has happened to its popularity?
When it first came about (well, when it became popular in 2009) it offered a chance like never before for people to connect with those whom they admired. In most cases, this was an affinity to a favoured celebrity. With a smartphone in your pocket, you were only 140 characters away from being able to tell Katie Perry you loved her latest plastic, synthesised nonsense, or from sharing with Cristiano Ronaldo what you call him when he’s not around.
It was a brilliant hook. Justin Bieber would say something incomprehensible and you could actually touch his unfiltered words, free from the shackles of a publicist’s suppression.
By way of evidence, here are the top 20 users today by number of followers. See if you spot the pattern:
- Katy Perry: 95,449,613
- Justin Bieber: 91,370,571
- Taylor Swift: 83,165,707
- Barack Obama: 83,073,322
- Rihanna: 69,315,498
- YouTube: 66,218,896
- Joanne: 65,011,024 (whoever this is I don’t know)
- Ellen DeGeneres: 64,857,050
- Twitter: 58,846,293
- Justin Timberlake: 57,783,976
- Britney Spears: 50,057,671
- Kim Kardashian West: 49,706,810
- Cristiano Ronaldo: 49,591,081
- Selena Gomez: 46,066,865
- CNN Breaking News: 45,496,993
- Jimmy Fallon: 44,391,816
- Ariana Grande: 43,659,481
- Shakira: 42,538,979
- Demi Lovato: 40,608,582
- Instagram: 40,098,620
With one or two obvious exceptions, they’re all celebrities. If you have time, or are even remotely interested, here’s the official Top 100: Click here.
Companies cottoned on to this virtual meeting place and soon began promoting their whatever-it-may-bes under the noses of the various groups of adoring fans (this is in fact the entire business model of Twitter, whose share prices incidentally dropped 14% last year).
We live in a world of ad-blockers, and people started getting annoyed with their escapism being hijacked by adverts disguised as tweets, so they turned off.
What is often overlooked, though, is what actually ‘does well’ on Twitter. I learned a long time ago to ignore anyone who ever says ‘this will do well on social media.’ I am yet to see this happen, and how do you define ‘do well’ anyway?
The only individual tweets that ever gain any major traction are the ones posted by big name personalities, and then there are ones that latch onto a fleeting trend that has been and gone before anyone has realised it could have been monetised. Most of us mere mortals have Twitter accounts that get very negligible engagement.
The number of Twitter followers you have is no measure of success. Pop-songstress Taylor Swift has 83m followers, but I’ve just looked at her tweets and the average engagement of the last 10 or so is about 120,000 ‘retweets’. A big number indeed, but that only amounts to a scant 0.14% engagement.
If you are tweeting a link to your website, what percentage actually click through to it? If you’re trying to generate web traffic, then your Tweet alone isn’t enough. You need worthy content in the first instance. Who follows a rubbish account?
In the real world, and in my experience, the only people who ever retweet things are those who might happen to be mentioned in it. While validation may be a nice thing if it happens to be you, what’s the actual real-world benefit?
I suspect the only reason why anyone posts to Twitter is because their rivals do it. We can’t afford to not have our name out there if our competitors have theirs.
It’s like nuclear weaponry. If they have them, we need them too. Our Twitter feeds become nothing more than noticeboards for ghosts.
In my field, social media’s role in my day is the squeaky door hinge, the wobbly table. It’s that little quirk that you solider on with. It’s mildly irritating, but it doesn’t warrant a crisis meeting: you press on.
By way of example, when I mention a company on Twitter, its handle isn’t always obvious, so I have to conduct a Google search to find the right one. I then have to be sure I’m not missing any essential hashtags. While this doesn’t take more than a minute or two, it’s still a mild inconvenience, because I know this particular tweet will only have a limited catchment. Thus my small effort is often redundant. I tut, and then go through the process again an hour later.
In the events industry, the ‘Big Thing’ is to have a hashtag dedicated to whatever event you’re running. Fine, but as journalists all we see are poor PRs having to spend their precious time hassling us to not forget ‘to use the hashtag’. Those of us under 40 usually oblige, but you soon discover that it’s only you, your fellow under-40 journalists and the poor PR using it anyway. What’s the benefit?
It’s a closed shop, we’re not actually branching out to anyone outside this event and, worse, we’re channelling all this energy into a tiny area based on the assumption that most people ‘have Twitter’.
Frustratingly, we all have to carry on with this practice for fear of looking like we’re out of touch. We use social media for social media’s sake, it often seems.
I do often wonder what will happen when a big player one day stands up and renounces Twitter (or any social media for that matter, sorry to pick on you, Twitter), what will that mean? I don’t profess to have the answer, but food for thought nonetheless.
So, after all that, can I give you a retweet? Yes I can, but unless I’m wearing a skimpy two-piece and my latest single is Number 1 in the charts, I fear it won’t do you much good.
*Irony check: this blog has been promoted on Twitter.