Why Twitter sucks – microblogging site loaded with landmines

Not since SMS (short message service) was first invented was it so cool to send messages in 140 characters or less – Twitter is taking the Internet world by storm and is blazing an unstoppable path towards a communications revolution, changing the way we work, do business and exchange news.

Or is it?

Twitter, the service that offers “What are you doing?” prompts and broadcasts the reply to your loyal followers (and the rest of the Internet), has taken the media by storm. It’s the only thing that’s more infectious than swine flu, in terms of the amount of news coverage it gets – except in Twitter’s case most of it is positive.

Oprah embraced the medium with the help of Ashton Kutcher, Twitter’s most popular user. It’s been adopted by world leaders such as Barack Obama and Stephen Harper. Pepsi has printed its Twitter URL on the side of its cans. You would think it has hit the mainstream.

Technology blogs and news publications – including many articles on ITBusiness.ca – cover the medium as though it’s the best thing since sliced bread. A myriad of stories give tips on how to tweet effectivelymarketing your business, growing your personal brand, even making money. All in 140 characters or less.

But the ground swell of support for Twitter doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s not all roses with this micro-blogging social network.

There are a growing list of security concerns, and the site has proven to be unstable in the past. Not as many people are adopting the service as you might think, and those who are embracing it wholeheartedly aren’t all having a great experience.

Twitter users (called “Twits” by some) are buried in one of those insular niches of the Internet. With the help of constantly present desktop clients, the endless stream of messages reinforces the view that Twitter is ubiquitous. But through the contorted lens of 140-character messages, it can be next to impossible to assess the real popularity of the service – not when you’re on the inside, looking out.

Numbers tell a different tale

A dose of quantitative statistics helps. Several recent studies pour cold water all over the notion that Twitter’s popularity is on fire.

Take Canadians who are online, for example. Although 26 per cent are aware of Twitter, only six per cent have ever bothered to use the tool even once. That’s just 1.45 per cent of the whole population, according to Calgary-based Ipsos Reid.

“People know about it, but people don’t use it,” says Mark Lave, associate vice-president of Ipsos Reid. “It’s a telling indication that there are just a few heavy users.”

That’s exactly what a Harvard Business study concluded earlier this month.

It found that 10 per cent of Twitter users make up 90 per cent of the content.

If that statistic — based on an examination of a few hundred users — and the Ipsos poll of 824 online Canadians doesn’t convince yet, how about a study that followed 4.5 million Twitter users over nine months?

Cambridge, Mass.-based HubSpot did just that. They found that 55 per cent of Twitter users aren’t following anyone, and another 55 per cent have never sent a message. Over half of Twitter users have no followers. That paints a picture of a pretty lonely social networking scene.

“Of the average Canadian, only a few people are that technologically savvy,” Laver says. “You’ve got a thin edge of the population that picks up that technology and uses it. That’s why we’re seeing low numbers.”

Bad experience for top user

Of those tech-savvy few who did subscribe to the service, not all are enjoying the experience. Trent Reznor, front man for the Nine Inch Nails, is arguably one of the best social media marketers in the world. His Web site contains countless, rich, user-generated content that ranges from forum discussions to fan re-mixes of songs. He’s released albums online for free, and for a small fee.

He also used Twitter, until recently.

“I decided to lower the curtain a bit and let you see more of my personality,” Reznor writes in a recent blog post. Tweets included details of his engagement to Mariqueen Maandig, vocalist of band West Indian Girl.

But some of his fans didn’t like what that personality entailed. The human behind the Nine Inch Nails personae didn’t live up to everyone’s presumptions. Their reaction was negative, and they loudly proclaimed it over Twitter — usually “spewing hate” from faceless accounts, Reznor says.

“I will be tuning out of the social networking sites because at the end of the day it’s now doing more harm than good in the bigger picture,” he writes. “The experiment seems to have yielded a result. Idiots rule.”

And with that, a user that’s been active for over a year and has accrued over 600,000 followers goes silent.

Security risks

It’s not safe to Tweet. Especially if you’re a well-known celebrity.

Bogus accounts have popped up for famous people such as Al Gore and Kanye West. Hence Twitter releasing it’s “verified account” service for people of note. Users will know they’re on the official page of a celebrity when they see the seal of approval adorned to the profile. But as Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos plc, points out in his blog, this hardly solves security woes.

“Now a hacked celeb account is more likely to have a seal claiming that the account is legitimate,” he writes. “Perhaps the poor user reading it being lulled into a greater sense of security that the post is for real.”

Some famous accounts have been hijacked lately – including those of Britney Spears and Barack Obama. A graphic seal will add no security layer to prevent this from occurring.

Celebs aren’t the only ones at risk. The average Twit also must constantly avoid spam and phishing attacks.

Cluley has documented other such incidents on his blog involving phishing sites.

For instance, Twittertrain promised to get users hundreds of new followers every day if only they’d hand over their log in credentials. Tvvitter.com also tried to trick users into releasing their passwords. Both turned out to be scams to hijack accounts and send out spam messages.

Some Twitter accounts are created solely for the purpose of spreading spam. This is a violation of the terms of use, but there is no barrier to creating a new account once you’ve been banned.

In it’s effort to attract as many new users as possible, Twitter’s open doors have resulted in a downside. There are security problems, and the temptation to use anonymous accounts to entice other users proves to be irresistible to some.

It’s not to say there’s no place for Twitter in the business world. But if the service ever wants to really go mainstream and stay relevant, these are issues it will have to address.

Despite his nay-saying, Brian Jackson is an ardent Twitter user. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/brianjjackson.

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