Why is Twitter so confusing?

[Note: I’ve turned off comments for this post, as it’s currently getting several spam comments a day. But if you want to leave one, feel free to tweet to me (@timtfj) so I can turn them on, or to use the contact form on this site.]

If you’re a Twitter user, you can’t have helped noticing a rash of articles and media coverage of Twitter recently. You probably also decided very quickly that at least 80% of the coverage [1] is written by people who haven’t even a rudimentary understanding of what Twitter really is and how it’s used.

The usual content of one of these articles is:

  • Twitter is suddenly very popular and everyone’s writing about it.
  • This is what they’re saying: [Insert scathingly negative quote from a similar article.]
  • The purpose of Twitter is for people to post 140-character messages about what they’re doing.
  • So it’s like a blog where all you can blog about is tedious minutiae of your life.
  • Nobody’s interested in reading that sort of blog.
  • Therefore it’s pointless.

And there typically follows either a rant about shortened attention spans, reality TV, the decline in intelligent conversation and so on, or some very puzzled thoughts about what on earth people get out of it and why.

If you’re not a Twitter user, you’ve probably encountered a fair number of articles like that by now and become equally puzzled.

As a user, I’ve sometimes been tempted be puzzled about where the confusion and ignorance comes from. Actually the source isn’t hard to find. More of that later. For now, let’s look at what Twitter actually is. Not what the articles say it is; not what Twitter describes itself as; but what it really is.

What Twitter is

Twitter is a setup where you can

  • post short, publicly viewable messages, which remain available indefinitely.  [2]
  • view a feed of the publicly viewable messages from a selection of other users, together with your own, with the most recent at the top. You choose whose to see.
  • address a publicly viewable message to a specific user.
  • view a feed showing the publicly viewable messages which have been addressed to you. These can be from anyone, not just people you’ve chosen for your main feed.
  • Send a private message to another user.
  • View the private messages sent to you.

There are other options too, such as searching the public messages for a particular phrase, viewing those from a specific user on their “profile” page, and viewing a snapshot of all the messages being posted at a particular moment. And there’s a widely-used unofficial system (“hashtags”) for labelling a public message by subject. But as far as the basics go, that’s it.

Also, rather importantly, you can do all this in a number of ways:

  • at the official website, http://twitter.com (not recommended, though you need to go there to sign up)
  • at the official mobile site, http://m.twitter.com/ (also not recommended, except for VERY basic use)
  • at other “client” websites, such as http://dabr.co.uk/ (highly recommended, especially for mobile phones: see my review)
  • by using various computer or phone applications, which often add functions not found on the official site
  • by sending and reaceiving SMS messages (for some functions, in some countries)
  • by Instant Messaging (I think).

So, what do we have? We have something like a speeded-up bulletin board or newsgroup, where posts can only be 140 characters long and you choose whose to see. Or a slowed-down chatroom where  you can  say 140 characters at a time and are heard only by the people who’ve chosen to be within earshot.  Another user described it as “being a fly on the wall of 20 different conversations”.

You can of course choose to be the person in the chatroom who only speaks and never listens or  replies to anyone; that would make it a bit like a blog of 140-character posts. But I, for one, probably won’t take much notice of you, because I enjoy the interaction. Like the people writing the articles, I mostly won’t see the point.

And there you have it. The basic idea of Twitter is actually very simple. A place for posting short messages, and a variety of ways of viewing them and responding to them. And not much like what the articles describe at all. Really, there are as many uses for Twitter as there are for a 140-character message.

So far I’ve carefully avoided using any of the official terms Twitter describes itself with. You’ll see why in a moment.

Why the confusion then?

How can something so simple cause so much confusion? I think there are three main sources for it:

  • The way Twitter describes itself.
  • The lack of any coherent introduction to the site when you sign up.
  • The impossibility of understanding Twitter from the outside.
Twitter’s self-description

When you first  visit http://twitter.com/, you are told

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

Well, that’s not true for a start. The messages—tweets— can be as frequent or as infrequent as you like. They can be about anything you like. Over 80% of mine are replies to other users. Only a tiny handful answer What are you doing? If my tweets answer anything, it’s What do you want to say? Yet, virtually all the articles quote What are you doing? to sum up what Twitter is for and why it’s not worth bothering with. Hardly surprising: the writers probably assume that Twitter’s description of what it’s for does in fact describe what it’s for.

Once signed up, you post a tweet by typing in a box which has What are you doing? above and an Update button below.  Because, you see, in their terminology you’re not “posting a message”: you’re “updating your status”. So, public messages are officially called updates or statuses, even though you’re normally not updating anything or talking about your “status” (and anwyay, shouldn’t status mean your standing in the community, not a piece of text?)

The Update button confused me at first: I thought it was for refreshing the screen (updating the view) and optionally posting some text.

Next, it turns out that a tweet addressed to another person (by putting @ and their username at the start) is known as an “@reply”. Except that very often, it’s not a reply at all: it could equally well be “How are you today?” or a piece of news you want to tell them.

Furthermore, the various message feeds are not called feeds, but given the rather grand name of timelines, as though their primary purpose were to tell you the dates and times of events, or maybe the route you’ve taken through the site. But it isn’t: they’re there to let you view various different collections of tweets. They’re actually views or feeds.

In other words,

  • What are you doing? is entirely the wrong question
  • the update button isn’t for updating anything
  • a status doesn’t represent the status of anything
  • an @reply doesn’t necessarily reply to anything
  • a timeline hasn’t really got anything to do with times
  • Twitter’s description on its front page is almost completely misleading

Is it any wonder people get confused?

And one of the most depressing things to see on Twitter is a series of dutiful What are you doing? answers similar to this:

Signing up for Twitter! Everyone says I should. Excited!
Getting confused. Now what? Help!
Eating dinner. Still puzzled.
Going shopping. Why would anyone want to know that? Very puzzled now.
Thinking Twitter probably doesn’t have any point to it. Is anyone reading this? How would I know? Hello if you’re out there!
Giving up on Twitter.

Lack of help

[Note: Twitter’s sign-up process is now somewhat different from what I describe here and it sounds as though things may have improved a little; see Stuart’s comment.]

Clearly, for Twitter to have any point, you need some tweets to read and you need some people reading yours. You need to be able to interact.

You make a person’s tweets visible on your home page (NB: this is different from your profile page) by following them. Your tweets show on their home page when they follow you. Twitter doesn’t tell you this: you simply end up on a home page which contains no tweets. None from you, because you’ve not tweeted yet, and none from anyone else, because you’re not following anyone yet. I think this is the stage at which a new user feels most completely at sea. Quite understandably: all they’ve got is a more or less blank page and the question What are you doing?, which is no help at all.

Initially, having people to follow is far more important than having people follow you. It gives you a starting point. You don’t really find followers by sitting there being lost. Generally, you find followers by following them first and having something interesting to say; they then see you in their follower lists and come to investigate who you are, so as to decide whether to follow you too.

What Twitter ought to do at this point is to give you a message along the lines

You aren’t following anybody yet, so you won’t see any tweets except your own. Here are some ways to find interesting people:

  • Visit the public timeline to watch for interesting tweets
  • Search for users near you
  • Search for users whose profile mentions a particular subject
  • Search for tweets mentioning a particular subject
  • View the friends list of a particular user
  • Find new contacts using Mr Tweet
  • Import contacts from your address book

with links you can then click to follow up the suggestions. Sadly, Twitter doesn’t do that. It leaves you floundering on your own.

And if you want suggestions on how to find people to follow—well, they’re in that list. Once you find someone interesting you can reply to one of their tweets, or simply quietly follow them until they say something you want to answer, and you’re away.

One exception to this though: if the person you find is famous, or has thousands of followers already, or has social media expert in their profile, it’s unlikely you’ll get a reply from them. (Unless it’s @kriscolvin, who has acquired over 19,000 20,000 21,000 followers largely by being friendly and replying to people. [3]) You’re mostly best talking to people who have a sensible number of followers and who show signs of replying to people (e.g. ther profile page contains a lot of tweets starting with @).

Incomprehensibility from outside

Twitter only really makes sense once you’re following and interacting with a number of people. If you’ve not joined up, you can’t see this happening. [4] All you can really do is visit the public timeline—a cacophony of unrelated tweets from thousands of users—or visit profile pages like mine where you’ll see one person’s tweets but not the people they’re addressed to. (If WordPress’ Twitter widget is working properly, mine are in the sidebar of this page.) Either way, you don’t see Twitter as it actually is. The views you can access aren’t the one a user sees most of the time, but ones they only use occasionally. They might visit someone’s profile page for reference or to catch up on missed tweets, or visit the public timeline as a way of finding random people. But the views that make sense are your home page, filled with tweets from people you’ve decided to follow, and your replies page, filled with tweets from people who are talking to you.

Summing up

Maybe I’m overdoing the bullet lists in this post, but here’s another one anyway.

  • Is it any wonder that Twitter confuses people? No.
  • Does Twitter need to confuse people? No.
  • Has Twitter done anything to make itself less confusing? No.
  • Does Twitter care about the confusion? I don’t know, but fear the answer to that may also be No.

I think this is a great shame, because the changes that would make Twitter seem as simple as it really is are fairly straighforward:

  • use language that reflects what Twitter really is
  • drop the misleading question What are you doing?
  • give new users a little bit of meaningful help in getting started.

I honestly think that’s all that’s needed, but sadly I see no sign of it happening.

Another article to read

I’m not too keen on autopneumotrombics so I thought a while before linking to this article which says very nice things about my own. But you may wish to read it. In it, Nancy Friedman takes up some of my my thoughts here and develops them further—particularly Twitter’s misleading opening greeting and the fact that people stick with Twitter anyway for what it is. She also picks up a few additional language points which I missed.


[1] A wild guess. It’s a lot, anyway. Back

[2] Theoretically. Back

[3] 19,000 was corrrect when I first posted this three days ago. Now, 20,000 21,000 is correct . . . Back

[4] Unless you’re in the know about applications like Tweetgrid; but you won’t be unless you’re already familiar with Twitter. Back

33 responses to “Why is Twitter so confusing?

  1. Twitter itself has not supported Instant Messaging (IM) since May 2008, but would apparently like to (re-)implement it some day.

    Twitter’s Status Update of 10th. Okt. 2008 “IM: Not coming soon” tells all.
    [ http://status.twitter.com/post/53978711/im-not-coming-soon ]

    However, some third-party applications such as excla.im [ http://excla.im/ ] provide IM support for Twitter.

  2. I didn’t ‘get’ Twitter from the outside, but in the spirit of exploration, I decided to sign up and find out whether it made more sense from inside. You’re right, it does – but sadly a lot of people won’t be brave enough to try it for themselves without some encouragement.

    • I know—and I wish Twitter themselves would provide some of that encouragement! But they seem unaware of the problem.

  3. This is the best explanation of Twitter and its discontents I’ve read or heard. I’m sharing it with my Twitter followers and pushing it in front of everyone else.

    One problem with Twitter isn’t Twitter’s fault (although I agree with you that Twitter doesn’t make things very easy for newcomers) but rather a consequence of our geographical metaphor for cyberspace. We expect Twitter to be “a website” like others–indeed, like other social-media inventions such as Facebook or LinkedIn. But Twitter isn’t a “site”; it’s a moving sidewalk, a stream, a conversation that can be listened to from multiple vantage points.

    • Thanks for the compliment. I just felt it needed writing, really.

      The “non-website” nature hadn’t actually occurred to me as one of the problems but I’m sure you’re right. The website is only one of the ways of accessing it, and I think the multiple viewpoints are key to what it is. The various websites and applications, including twitter.com, are just windows onto what’s going on, and you pick the window that best suits your use of it.

      Thanks for adding the bit I missed!

  4. Firstly, great article.

    It seems Twitters sign up process has changed to prompt you to first follow people you know and others of potential interest.

    Yesterday I signed my sister up for a Twitter account and part of the sign up stage now is you can firstly hook in to your gmail, yahoo, etc account and download your contacts. From there it searches twitter for people already using it for you to “Follow”.

    From there it offers to ‘invite’ more of your friends to use twitter.

    Next it shows you a heap of other popular people to “Follow”. eg. CNN, Imogen Heap, BoingBoing etc

    (I probably haven’t got the process in order or totally correct)

    • Thanks—It sounds as though I ought to create a temporary Twitter account to see what happens during sign-up. Now that you mention it, I do vaguely remember Twitter offering to do various things, but that none of them seemed helpful at the time. I remember feeling that Twitter had its own ideas about how I should use it . . . So maybe Twitter was offering the wrong sort of help rather than no help? Hmmm.

      I’d better check, because I don’t want my post to be misleading.

      On the other hand, as indicated in the post, I definitely wouldn’t suggest “popular people to follow” as the ones to follow when getting started; I think anyone who did that would rapidly find themselves effectively watching a broadcast, with no interaction.

      And maybe that’s one source of the misconception that it’s just for broadcasting stuff about oneself?

  5. thanks heaps for the lovely comment on my blog 🙂 xxx bec

  6. Great Article thanks for sharing!

  7. I’m personally having to find interesting Twits only to stop following them because all they do is tell me about marketing on Twitter, they had a nice lunch or are recycling news from a news service and if they don’t get a reply retweet the same message all over again. I have stopped following as many as I follow. The thing that annoys me the most is being told how to get more followers, well I’m not Jesus, I don’t want followers, I have nothing to sell and I don’t recycle other peoples hard work. If I find something of particular note I’ll share it but not if it’s already in the main stream of net traffic, I’m not Rupert Murdoch’s paper boy doing a delivery run.

    • Well I’m with you on that. And I’m not keen on the “guru” types either: I mean the ones who only tweet what they consider to be pearls of wisdom about marketing, management and the like.

      I followed one of those because I liked several of her tweets, but then discovered that she never actually replied to anything unless it fitted her guru image, and I unfollowed after she tweeted what I thought was some rather superficial and dangerous psychological advice.

      I responded saying why I thought she was wrong, waited 24 hours, then unfollowed when there was no sign that she’d even noticed my reply.

      It felt like a game in which she enjoyed being the guru and the followers enjoyed being in the presence of a guru, with no actual justification for the guru status. A pseudo-religion for management types.

  8. I agree completely, Twitter is branding gone wrong, I was put off because it says “What are you doing?”. The web interface is totally wrong, like you cant see quickly whether somebody you are following is following you back, you cant search all the messages you are getting to filter by particular person, and if you are trying to post a URL that is more than 140 characters, it wont let you, but it is going to shorten it anyway. (in web interface)

  9. Nice post. Hope someone’s taking notice.

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  14. Tim-

    Fantastic post! I think you do a great job of summing up what is at the heart of the problem of misconceptions about Twitter! Let’s hope the Twig-Wigs notice! 🙂


  15. A thorough explanation Tim. My dad was asking me to explain Twitter at the weekend & even doing a demo it was difficult to explain it succinctly.

    Only knowing someone who used Twitter and got some value from it finally pushed me to sign up and after I got brave and followed some people did it all start to make sense.

    I would say that there are different ways in which you can use Twitter. For instance it can be used by a company, charity, organisation or service (whether they be based online or not) to keep people up to date with news and happenings. They don’t need to interact with users in an @reply kind of way to be useful and interesting. It’s a totally different way to use Twitter to how an individual might.

    I’m not talking here about them pushing ads and marketing tweets. I’m thinking of accounts like my local council who use it to tweet news and even have a twitter account that tweets new planning applications. Or Oxfam tweeting relevant news and campaign action.

    I suspect the misleading nature of the wording on Twitter is because when it launched it was intended to be a status update service. But it’s users evolved its use to be more than just What Are You Doing? I wonder if changing the terminology might lead to changes that would take away some of it’s appeal. But it would have helped me sign up 1-2 years earlier if it had just had a little explanation on that front page!

    • Hmmm . . . I wouldn’t want changed terminology to cause changes in its flexibility! I can see what you mean. Ideally any words used should simply describe what the system does, without specifying what the people who use it are meant to do. (Which is why I tried very hard to do that in my first section, and ended up repeating “publicly viewable messages” a lot). Like you wouldn’t want a computer keyboard which told you what subjects you were supposed to type about . . .

      I agree there are also some very good “broadcast-only” uses of Twitter—. really I wanted to emphasize is that they’re far from being the only or main use, and I particularly wanted to emphasize it to the people who are turned off by the “microblog” idea.

      For me the most brilliant example was @marsphoenix, whose bio read “I dig Mars” and which tweeted news of the lander’s latest activities, links to what could be seen through its camera and so on, all written in the first person as if by the space probe itself. That was a microblog, but a fascinating one showing us day-to-day life on Mars. It was so effective that people became emotionally attached to the Phoenix Lander, sending sympathetic messages when it tweeted that the Martian winter was coming and it probably wouldn’t survive.

      My own first use of Twitter was almost completely unlike my current use of it, too: I used it to keep in touch with family members just before my father’s death and then as we organised his funeral. I kept my news updates about it in my Favourites folder, so I could direct people there rather than tell the same news over and over again. So at that point I did have a microblog, but it consisted of my Favourites rather than my main timeline. I thought carefully before eventually beginning to use the Favourites in the usual way.

      Twitter was ideal for that because I didn’t have a lot of energy for writing and didn’t have a proper blog yet anyway.

      So maybe that’s another thing about Twitter: what you eventually use it for might have nothing at all to do with the reason you first signed up!

  16. I joined Twitter and basically only 2 other people I know are on it & following a bunch of celebrities or news groups, or companies is really lame.

    Seeing Ashton Kutcher (where in the heck has he been???) celebrating his million Tweets with LARRY KING on CNN was the lamest thing ever.

    I got on fb in college and was on there for 4 years, but it’s way too mainstream now. It’s the same thing with Twitter. It’s being so overly-hyped that it’s not going to be fun and trendy for very much longer.

  17. Tim, Twitter changed the sign-up process in January and again in February/March.

    In January they started suggesting people to follow to new users during the sign-up process. In February/March they started automatically selecting a bunch of people so that new users had to actively un-select the suggested people. This was, presumably, to tackle the issue you mention of new users starting with a blank screen. It was also the reason for the very sudden increases in follower numbers for some users. Most UK celebrities weren’t on the auto-follow list and gained their followers by mentioning it on TV and radio e.g. @stephenfry and @chrisdjmoyles.

    In the past week things may have changed again because there has been a sudden slow-down in growth for some accounts that were growing quickly.

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  19. Yeah, Twitter can be a little bit confusing at the begining, so the main point is to take it slow, and only follow people you really think are interesting.

  20. John Klein

    I see two general types of tweets: short one’s in which people actually do say what they are doing, or something related to their personal lives. Sometimes these are accompanied with photos

    The second type of tweet are those that are ‘issue’ oriented, whether political, social, work, business, etc. These tweets transmit a link to an online article the tweeter wants you to read and that expresses the senders own views or philosopy on an issue.

    Retweets are spam as far as I’m concerned.

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  22. Thanks for all the info, we are trying to reach another market with twitter. This helps clear some of the confusion.

  23. You, sir, have said it all.

  24. I signed up to twitter 1 week ago but deactivated it soon after.Here’s what happened.I decided to follow a popular Indian female actress and tweeted to her but there is no reply.I initially thought my tweet will be visible on her homepage and profile page,Only later I found out after going through several websites related to twitter that my tweet is in the mentions section of the followed person.This is something I feel that Twitter should have explained to newcomers.While waiting for a reply,I updated my status describing my daily life including sickness,the type of food I ate and shitting.Day 4 ,still no reply so I went on a rampage visiting her tweeter followers asking them why she is not responding to my tweet.But guess what,I got suspended from using my account,given a warning and went through the appealing process.Finally I got back my account and the followed celebrity tweeted to me but she was so pissed off that she blocked me from following her tweets.I’ve had enough and did the right thing by deactivating my account.

  25. Thanks, a very amusing blog that helps clear the twitter mist…

  26. I tried tweeter a year ago and it became extremely annoying very fast. I started to get stupid messages from people I didn’t know, spam, etc. I got tired of blocking them and reporting their messages a a spam. I used T on iPod, it was embedded in iOS; then I realized that it wasn’t possible to delete messages at all. I deleted the app, deactivated my account and got peace. I realize that thousands of people use it and enjoy it however I didn’t find T useful. It doesn’t match my lifestyle and my needs. And, YES, it IS extremely confusing in 2013 no matter what you wrote in 2009.