Tweets from the Edge

First published February 5, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I’m now on Twitter (@outofmygord if you’re interested), which, to use the emerging verb of consensus, means that I tweet.  I’m not sure I’m a Twaddict (a la Todd Friesen) but I am moving through Rohit Bhargava’s 5 Stages of Twitter Acceptance

1 . Denial  — “I think Twitter sounds stupid. Why would anyone care what other people are doing right now?”

2. Presence —  “Ok, I don’t really get why people love it, but I guess I should at least create an account.”

3. Dumping –“I’m on Twitter and use it for pasting links to my blog posts and pointing people to my press releases.”

4 .Conversing — “I don’t always post useful stuff, but I do use Twitter to have authentic 1X1 conversations.”

5. Microblogging — “I’m using Twitter to publish useful information that people read AND converse 1×1 authentically .”

My self-assessment has me currently lodged between steps 3 and 4, but with signs of promise. And so, through the phenomenon of synchronicity, it now seems that everywhere I turn I see signs of Twitter. One of the recent one’s was Kaila Colbin’s Search Insider column about Twitter’s monetization strategy, or lack of same. Twitter is not unique; virtually every social network struggles with this issue. I would like to add two observations from my perspective.

The Curse of the Early Adopter

Social networks seem to be perennially stuck on the edge of the wrong side of Geoffrey Moore’s Chasm.  They flourish with early adopters, who are by nature fickle when it comes to technology and any bright shiny object, but social networks have difficultly embedding themselves in the mainstream. I’m seeing signs that Facebook might successfully make the leap across the Chasm, based on my “Jill” litmus test. When my wife is familiar with a technology, it usually means it’s crossed the Chasm.  Jill doesn’t have a Facebook page, but she has visited it (due largely to the fact that we have teenage daughters — ’nuff said).

The problem in trying to track these things is that whatever the blogosphere is buzzing about bears little resemblance to what will actually gain traction with a mainstream market. We (and yes, I include myself) are exactly the wrong people to prognosticate about what may be the next killer app for the average Joe. We are all technology nerds. Everyone I know in this industry is a technology nerd. The ones who actually blog and emerge as thought leaders are the most hopeless of the lot. We exist in a rarified technological atmosphere and have largely lost touch with the real world. It doesn’t mean we’re inherently prone to be wrong about the marketability of new technology, but it also means we’re not inherently right. We’re guessing, and all too often we let our personal enthusiasm bias our forecasts.

Social networks are always held up to Google as the monetization baseline, and it’s an unfair and misleading comparison. There were a number of circumstances unique to Google that won’t be replicated with a social network. They include user intent, the nascent stage of the Internet during Google’s introduction, lack of visionary competition and the luxury of developing a critical mass of usage on its own real estate.  The problem with monetizing Twitter is that much of the interaction with it happens on a third-party app.

Social and Market Norms

Perhaps the biggest reason why it’s difficult to monetize social results has to do with how our online experiences are framed, and the concept of social vs. market norms.  Here’s an example. You take your family out for an Italian dinner. The meal is fabulous. The portions are huge. After one of the best meals you’ve ever had, you hand $180 to the hostess. She throws it back in your face, storms into the kitchen and you’re abruptly escorted to the door. If we were at a restaurant, this reaction would be rather surprising. But if we’re at my mother-in-law’s for Sunday dinner, it suddenly makes sense. The difference is the frame in which we view the scenario. If we look at it through a market norm, the rules that govern commerce and fair trade, it’s entirely appropriate to offer fair compensation for a meal. If we look at it through a social norm, the rules that govern our family and friend relationships, it’s an unforgivable insult.

This slippery slope between market and social norms is the treacherous one that a social network must tread. Here’s another example. You’re at a party and you’ve asked two friends about their opinions on the best car for you to buy. Another person at the party overhears this — someone who just happen to be a salesperson at the local Ford dealership. Sensing opportunity, the salesperson whips around and immediately starts telling you why the Ford Mustang is the perfect car for you. How would you feel? How would you respond to the information?  How uncomfortable would the discussion become?

The challenge is that you moved from a social norm to a market norm and you weren’t in control of the transition. The same is true when you use a social network to ask for information and suddenly the network uses that to present targeted ads to you.  Kaila was right to point to Twitter’s search functionality as its only monetization opportunity. Google has conditioned us to accept a search results page as a place we can look at through market norm eyes. Also, we’re searching all Tweets for mention of a product, not specifically asking our friends. The difference is crucial in how we accept the advertising message.

The confluence of social networking and search is exciting to contemplate, but expect a lot of trial and error in the quest to find the right business model. Personally, I don’t expect to find it any time soon, and I also expect a lot of miffed users as part of the collateral damage.

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