That’s when Oprah sent her much-talked-about first tweet on Twitter, complete with all-caps and curious use of “Twitters.” Many of her millions of viewers jumped on the new service, legacy Twitter users grumbled … and the world, somehow, kept turning.
The good news is that Oprah introduced many, many people to a communication platform that has many good uses. The bad news is that the initial foray showed them the wrong way to use it. All-caps faux pas aside, here are just some of the ways Oprah meeting Twitter on April 17, 2009, had inherent difficulties:
1. Twitter is not a megaphone, it’s a mass telephone. Oprah blasted out a well-intended message to everyone but wasn’t really listening back. The New York Times’ Nick Bilton tweeted that day that Oprah was getting more than 1,000 replies per minute. The problem: She didn’t respond. Which leads into …
2. When a new technology is used wrong, users miscast the blame. Imagine you’re a devoted Oprah follower. Here, at last, your hero is using what is touted as a democracizing communication channel where everyone talks to everyone. Except she won’t talk back to you. Since Oprah is your hero, you can’t blame her for this disconnect. Hence, Twitter must be flawed. And perhaps pointless.
3. Twitter backlash perfectly positioned. When all the media went, ahem, a-twitter over Twitter, people who rushed to the site may have found a fail whale from its rolling outages due to limited capacity. Or they found a simple interface that wasn’t exactly a shiny object. Their fave celebs didn’t return their @ messages. And overall, Twitter is a community that requires work cultivating connections and having conversations to appreciate the benefits. It’s not a quick fix. So people who didn’t get it and saw all the Twitter headlines hated the service all the more.
4. You have to find the signal among the noise. When people rushed onto Twitter and made a beeline for their fave celebrities, they discovered something: Celebs may not have much of value to say on Twitter. Many of my friends created accounts about this time. Many of them abandoned their accounts shortly thereafter. “Twitter is boring,” they complained. But my response, straight out of Twitter 101, is: If you follow boring people, Twitter is boring. If you follow interesting people, Twitter is interesting. Put another way: If you and I both go to a cocktail party, and I speak to the most boring people in the room, while you talk to the most interesting people, our perception of the party will be shaped by those reactions.
But Twitter, and the many dedicated Twitterati, shrugged off the surge and subsequent departure of fairweather members. Some friends who abandoned the service came back eventually and found value. Twitter’s overall membership boomed from an estimated 10 million at the time to near 200,000 accounts now. But it wasn’t necessarily Oprah.
Most people I know in the time since who have become active on Twitter did so because a friend recommended it, not because they read some glitzy article. And it’s a proven marketing truism that we’re much more likely to try and find satisfaction from things our friends recommend than that pushed upon us by the mass media. Whether this increase would have taken place organically, on a peer-to-peer basis, who knows … maybe Twitter was was always poised for logarithmic growth?
And away from the spotlight, 2.5 years or 30 months later, a funny thing happened. If you look at Oprah’s Twitter account, she’s doing a great job of engaging with followers. She’s using Twitter the right way. If she or her team had researched Twitter and done this from the start (and admittedly she was much busier while still doing the show daily), would that have changed folks’ perception of Twitter? Or were most of the people who rushed there bound to leave Twitter anyway? The world may never know. But it’s interesting to see that Oprah — just like Twitter itself — has continued to evolve.