Back in the day I would sometimes wear my Onion shirt above to gigs at the Cannery in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The Cannery was always an easy outdoor gig. Tourists provided a self generated audience. They were happy to while away an afternoon having a few drinks, listening to live original music. Afterwards they tended to chat and buy CDs (back when those were a thing). That’s me from ten years ago playing with Acoustic Son. I’m the one on keys and backing vox, hiding my snarky Onion t-shirt behind my black sweater.
Now I haven’t played with Acoustic Son in a nearly a decade. But it’s fun to have a side project beyond family, kids and work. So over time my promising local band hobby became a promising local blog hobby. What brought this to mind is how I use twitter with this blog. Twitter has its rock stars with their rock star follower counts. But most people on twitter (like me) are in the equivalent of promising local bands, or blogs as the case may be. What jumped out at me is how tweeting in the long tail feels so much like making music in the long tail. It has it’s rewards, but it’s impossible to avoid the glare from superstars. I think my reaction to twitter as a “local band” user will be matched by most people. This has potentially huge implications for twitter as it tries to expand its footprint.
The problem for “local band” twitter users is well recognized. In an interview after Twitter’s recent IPO, CEO Dick Costolo conceded that twitter “can be confusing and opaque to users who come to the service for the first time.” Furthermore “It’s all about making it very simple and easy for new users to come to the platform and understand what’s going on in the platform, engage content easily and immediately on the platform while still enabling that architecture and language that’s developed from the very users who we had on stage today leverage it the way they like to.” The transcript and jargon are a little hard to parse outside the full interview. But the idea is pretty simple. We have a conflict between the needs of twitter casual users and twitter rock star users.
Twitter’s optimization for 1 percenters is clear from the addictive allure its stars feel. To understand why, read Kathryn Schulz’s definitive piece “That Goddamned Blue Bird and Me: How Twitter Hijacked My Mind“. My favorite comment on this (via twitter of course) was someone thanking Schulz for making it unnecessary for anyone to write about twitter’s addictive nature ever again.
If you prefer your charts and graphs, we can dig into Ezra’s Klein’s piece “Why do journalists prefer Twitter to Facebook?” Here’s his chart showing which social media platforms drive traffic to news sites:
As Ezra Klein notes on what drives traffic:
Facebook is clearly dominant — and getting more so. Pinterest — which no journalist I know spends even a second considering — is in second place, and it, too, is growing. Twitter is driving less than a tenth of Facebook’s traffic — and it’s flattening out.
Yet journalists — and, quite often, the organizations that employ them — clearly prefer Twitter. They put enormous effort into building Twitter brands and coming up with Twitter strategies. That’s the impression the social-media vendors get and the social-network employees get. It’s true for every journalist I know, and it’s true for me, too. The reason, I think, is that Twitter is simply more useful for our jobs.
What’s fascinating (and amazing) about twitter is it’s usefulness to 1 percenters across so many professions. Just in people I follow I see it in Economists, Tech Analysts, Environmentalists, Philosophers, Philanthropists, Physicists. Obviously as a science nerd my follower list is a bit skewed, but I heard somewhere that Katy Perry is doing fine on twitter as well.
And just as music slices it’s stars into narrow genres, like say, Folk Metal, so twitter slices it’s stars into narrow genres as well. But either overall, or within a genre, we see a fat tail distribution where there’s a huge drop off in follower count as we move down the list (close to a power law but not quite). Here’s a chart from beevolve showing that 81.1% of twitter users have 50 or less followers. Think of this large majority as local bands.
How does it feel to be a twitter “local band” user with a less than 50 followers? I’m an expert. Let me blogsplain it to you.
I created this blog to replace some reply all email discussions I had with a handful of friends and family on nerdy topics. So perhaps 10 people total. That’s seems far too few to be worthwhile. It’s not. Just as you can play music to 10 people in a coffee shop and feel some joy, so you can write for a small audience if they read and appreciate it. The classic on growing a business in the digital era is of course “1000 true fans“. But with a hobby you can get by with far less. This is especially true if the creative process (writing a song, or learning/reading/writing a blog post) is enjoyable in and of itself.
So I set up this blog, and since two of my brothers asked for it, I set up a dedicated twitter account @praxtime to cross post to. So for a long time @praxtime had two twitter followers. To be clear, I use a separate regular account @ntaylor963 for all my day-to-day reading/following and twitter usage. Now late one night last month while porting my blog to here on WordPress I got random shout out from Tech Analyst Ben Thompson, who I really like and often cite in my posts.
I had two reactions. First, I got a rush for being called out by someone I follow, and glad I randomly happened to be online at the time so I could reply. At that moment I felt a shadowy reflection of the addictive rush 1 percenter twitter stars feel all the time. Second, Thompson said I had 4 followers, but I thought I only had 2 brothers following. Where the heck did those other 2 people come from? Anyway, the end result was my twitter followers jumped to 100. This is a rounding error for Thompson’s 7000 followers, much less a tech superstar like John Gruber with a quarter million. But if you go back to the chart above, and recall the fat tail nature of twitter, even this bumps me into the top 10% by follower count.
To continue the music parallel, I had a nearly identical response after a gig years ago when a keyboard player (far, far better than me) came up after a show saying my song “I Do What My Television Tells Me” was pretty good. Marketing alert: still available on iTunes and Amazon.
The reason for indulging this detail is to make clear how being in a local band is an utterly different emotional experience from being a rock star. This gives twitter a classic software problem. It’s exceedingly difficult to make software fit disparate users well. Twitter’s greatness lies exactly in its simplicity. But of course what’s natural for a star can be a bad for a local band.
New twitter users face two big hurdles. First, overcoming the mental hurdle of understanding the following/follower model. In the jargon, onboarding and discovery. Second, editing and keeping the list of people you follow up to date (that’s curation). The equivalent of curation for music is people who edit and tag all their mp3’s, and keep playlists and favorite artists up to date. For music nerds like me this curation is worth it. For normal human beings, honestly it’s not.
But curation has another problem. Local bands want to be stars. You send out a great tweet. Your hit single. No one cares. Not only is curation too much work for normal human beings, it has a hidden emotional cost. Curating your list makes you depressed. Twitter works by giving you a direct connection with stars. But if you aspire to stardom yourself that emotional connection backfires.
What should twitter do? Perhaps there isn’t a solution. Twitter continues on its path of being an utterly dominant platform for the 1 percenters in all walks of life. Not a bad business to be in.
But I have a proposal. Twitter should extend its existing Discover feature to make it a Pandora style timeline feed. Pandora Radio is of course the internet radio service that let’s you like and dislike songs until you get the stuff you want. This could be great for casual users. It’s especially great for people who just want to consume. Instead of curating a list of people to follow, think stations. You first pick from a couple of categories such as News, Tech, Celebrities to show what you’re interested in. Then Pandora style you like and dislike tweets until you are happy. It would work for the vast majority of human beings who will never curate their lists, and frankly find competing with stars on twitter far too depressing. People like this would probably consume twitter on something like Flipboard rather than Tweetbot 3.
Of course having a Pandora style algorithm select tweets for you would justifiably make existing twitter power user angry. It breaks twitter’s simple model. But I think twitter is clearly dipping their toe in the pool. The Discover feature already attempts to pick tweets for you, though with no ability to like/dislike. Plus their recent announcement of a software API to customize timelines could allow third parties to do this. But of course that’s the crux of the problem. If twitter attempts to satisfy both their power and casual users they may fail both. Having an idea like doing Pandora feeds on twitter is easy. Executing on it in a way that keeps everyone happy is unbelievably hard. Maybe we’ll wind up with a third party startup doing this using the timeline API coupled with a flipboard feed, rather than being done within twitter itself. Time will tell.
Postscript: If you lead a band, then the marketing side is unrelenting. You can’t get gigs if you can’t fill seats. Regardless of how good you are. Acoustic Son is still around, in fact sounding better than ever since they got rid of their keyboard player. So if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area I encourage you to check out their web site, or follow them on facebook.
Finally, for me being in a local band is not necessarily about being a hipster, rather it’s being (on occasion) mistaken for one. So let’s finish with this very old, pre-Acoustic Son, song I wrote. My off pitch backing vocals bug me on this recording (regret not using some autotune), but to me it still has a certain low fi analog charm.