Not A Broadcast Medium

How do you use Twitter? Do you see it as a tool for interacting with people, or do you simply use it as a broadcast medium? Is it a place for dialogue or monologue?

I started thinking about this over the weekend whilst thinking about Nadine Dorries, the MP for Middle England. Back in May, Dorries had a very strong opinion on Twitter. She wrote:

In discussion over lunch today the conclusion was reached that twitters use twittering, by and large, to moan and complain. It’s a virtual gnashing of the teeth, or beating of the chest. A cyberspace ‘well I never’.


Twittering has to be a symptom of a dysfunctional society.

Before reaching the conclusion:

Anyway, safe to say, I shan’t be joining the legions of twitters any day soon.

It was therefore surprising, to say the least, to see @NadineDorriesMP appear on Twitter late last week. She did, however, acknowledge her change of heart:

I did attack Twitter initially and for that I do eat humble pie, however, you will never know when the milk in my fridge is out of date or I’ve run out of tea bags, of that you can be sure.:)

Whether she’ll be true to her word this time, only time will tell. But it’s interesting to watch how she uses Twitter. Out of almost thirty tweets, only two of them have been replies to people. A few more mention other Twitter users. But the vast majority of her tweets are just a broadcast message and there’s no evidence of her actually engaging in discussion with anyone over her opinions. Twitter search shows that there are plenty of people trying to engage with her, but she has so far chosen to ignore them.

You can also look at the number of people who she follows on Twitter. As I write, that’s eleven. There are close three hundred people following her, but she’s only interested in reading what eleven twitterers have to say. That’s not a ratio which makes me think she’s interested in hearing other points of view or getting involved in conversations.

That’s when I realised that there are two different ways that people use Twitter. Most people (or, at least, most people I follow) see it as a powerful way to interact with people. Even people who have huge numbers of followers engage with at least some of their followers. Take, for example, three people who I follow who have huge followings – Tim O’Reilly, Stephen Fry and Neil Gaiman. If you look at their tweets, you’ll see that they’re full of replies and retweets. These are people who are using Twitter to build and deepen the relationships they have with their followers. You’ll also notice that they all follow large numbers of people. They all know that the more people tweets that you read, the more interesting stuff you’ll find and the more useful Twitter will become to you.

On the other hand, there are the people who see Twitter as just a broadcast medium. People who just speak and don’t listen. People who only like the sound of their own voice – or, at least, don’t mind giving that impression. These people (and Dorries is only the most recent example I’ve found – I won’t embarrass any others by naming them) seem to only be using Twitter because it’s the newest platform for getting their message out there. They seem to have no interest in talking about their ideas. They aren’t interested in what we have to say in reply. That may not be a true representation of how they feel, but by not talking to people on Twitter that’s the impression they are giving.

It’s something that can be measured. I think there are three ways that you can measure someone’s “socialability” on Twitter.

  • The ratio of the number of people they follow to the number of people who follow them
  • The percentage of their tweets that contain references to other twitterers
  • The percentage of their tweets that are retweets

Twitter makes it easy to get this data for all accounts. I think it would be an interesting project to rank Twitter users by how socialable they are. But like all good ideas, I’m sure that someone else has beaten me to it. I’ve done a quick bit of Googling, but I can’t find anything obvious, so if anyone knows of a site that produces these stats, please let me know in the comments.

And to Nadine Dorries (if she ever reads this), please interact more.


  1. Hmmm I don’t think you can say that if people don’t retweet or reply they aren’t interested in what anyone else has to say.Even the ratio of followers/following doesn’t necessarily tell you much. For instance I might follow a small number of people but who post very frequently compared to me. So I will still end up doing a lot more reading than writing.I guess I do view twitter as a broadcast medium. It’s not a user friendly platform for interaction, in my opinion. But I don’t think that makes it unsociable. The fact you can read about pretty much anything and group posts together instantly allows you to create virtual ‘societies’ that you can drift in and out of with very little effort.The reason it’s not good for interaction is that there is no threading. You can’t see what people are replying to. Effectively those people are just talking to each other, there isn’t a big incentive to join in a group discussion. And seeing replies to other people you don’t know, about a subject you didn’t see, is actually quite messy.Retweeting interesting posts is kind of useful, that can introduce you to other interesting people. But to be honest if they dropped direct replies altogether I wouldn’t miss it. In fact I think it would be an improvement.Just my 2p anyhoo.

  2. This is something that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot since starting to play with Twitter and I think it comes down to one simple statement – you’re all doing it wrong.Everyone uses Twitter in a slightly different way, and while I think those that are merely using it as a substitute for RSS are totally missing the point, many people do seem to use it as a pure broadcast medium – both broadcasters and consumers.I’ll continue spending a chunk of my time trying to explain to people while expanding their usage from broadcasting to interaction is a Good Thing, but as long as there are people who like the use then it will continue.On the grading front, have put together some metrics to give people a grade for their twitter account, which I think pretty much takes your ideas and adds in a bit about follower influence and regularity of tweeting.

  3. It’s still incredibly difficult for most people to even grasp Twitter at all. “Why would I want to know what Stephen Fry had for breakfast?” is the kind of question I get asked if the topic comes up in polite conversation.Twitter themselves have an about section and say this:”At Twitter, we ask one question, “What are you doing?” The answers to this question are for the most part rhetorical. In other words, users do not expect a response when they send a message to Twitter. On the receiving end, Twitter is ambient–updates from your friends and relatives float to your phone, IM, or web site and you are only expected to pay as much or as little attention to them as you see fit”Which seems very fair, free, and open.Twitter is part RSS feed, part blog, part discussion forum – whatever you want it to be.I don’t know anything about Ms Dorries, but don’t think her use of Twitter is something she should be chastised for – being there at all should probably be praised.

  4. So, I’m one of these poeple; I use twitter entirely as a broadcast medium. I do not reply publically.Maybe I’m “doing it wrong”, but this is one of the ways that I keep the cost of following me very very low – you’ll only see seven or less tweets a week if you follow me, and none of them will be half snatches of conversations between me and other people you may not be interested in.As billy says, each to their own.

  5. The problem, at least for me, is that Twitter doesn’t work well as a medium for interaction, not least because there’s little if any useful sense of comment threading the way that mail clients & discussion board website software has managed to do for years & years now.As a result, I *regularly* get people replying to something I’ve said with responses like “me too”, “same here”, or just “yes” or “no”. I routinely have no idea what these people are talking about — admittedly, it’s mainly a couple of repeat offenders, but nevermind, I blame the tool not the user here — because there’s no clear way of identifying what they’re replying to.Yes yes, you can use to reconstruct threads, at least to the extent that Twitter was able to reconstruct the metadata necessary to do so (which never seems to work very well), but having to switch there every time you want to catch a reference is just insane.As it happens, a large fraction of the people I follow on Twitter also have Facebook accounts, and most of them seem to be cross-posting. If they say something worth commenting on, I’ll nearly always follow up on Facebook, not Twitter, because the mechanism for replies on FB is actually clear, simple, and reliable.* * * * *The follower/following thing also seems weird to me as a useful metric. I read about 100 people, give or take; around 150 read me, give or take, though I’m sure at least some are spammers or at least marketers.Of the ~100 people I follow, I do try to read everything posted, even if I don’t respond to the vast majority of it. It’s already a bit more than I can properly keep up with, but thankfully most of them post infrequently so it’s not that bad for the most part.On the other hand, I don’t see the virtue of following back to every random stranger that decides to follow me. In fact, if the “random” stranger is following hundreds or thousands of people, I’m not sure I want them reading me in the first place, and I’m just as likely to block them as to leave them there.Every new follow is a time commitment — in some cases a significant one — and I’ve never understood the line of thinking that suggested that the “polite” way to use Twitter was to reflexively follow back any random person that starts following you.* * * * *If that reluctance to interact, due to Twitter’s poor tools for doing so and for the high cost of commiting to read every random person that follows me, makes me de facto a “broadcaster”, then so be it.But I certainly don’t see it that way.And on the Facebook side, where you actually have good tools for interacting with people, I find the balance is a lot more reciprocal than it is on Twitter.

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