Swine Flu Chatter on Twitter Highlights Site’s Identity Crisis

April 30, 2009 07:40 AM
by Liz Colville
Celebrities have helped Twitter traffic surge with more voices on issues like the swine flu pandemic. But many users also appear to be fleeing the site.

Sifting Through (Mis)information on Twitter

When a subject like swine flu makes its way to Twitter, the results vary. The site’s traffic “has catapulted to 6 million unique viewers each month,” The Wall Street Journal reports, which only means that there is a growing swath of voices and readers on the site. For many of them, a health scare is likely a top priority.

But not every tweet tagged #swineflu is going to deliver accuracy or add to the debate. PC World argues that tweets on the subject are comprised of “inanity interspersed with honest attempts by people to inform their followers.”

But you don’t have to follow someone to see what they’re saying; all public tweets are available through, a promising search engine in its own right. Anyone can follow what’s being said by typing in the keywords “swine flu.”
As one commenter on PC World’s article put it, “Anyone who uses Twitter as their source of information in a crisis is an idiot.” This is not necessarily true, but the implication is that Twitter’s search engine is flawed. There is no algorithm to filter for relevance and no human to predict what the searcher may want. Rather, there is a range of Twitter users, some seeking to help others by providing useful facts on an issue. In this sense, the site is “human-powered.” The helpful tweets will come up, but so will “inanity.” The challenge is to track down the informative users and follow them.

As it stands, any tweet that contains the words “swine flu” will come up. As with other search engines, sifting through the information can be just as stressful as feeling uninformed or misinformed.

Recent Developments: Are Twitter users quitters?

According to a Nielsen Online survey released April 28, Twitter’s “retention rate” is lower than its traffic surge might suggest: only about 40 percent who sign up in a given month are likely to return the next month.

Recently, “celebrity exposure” has really helped Twitter, Nielsen’s David Martin points out. “People are signing up in droves,” but the site “faces an uphill battle in making sure these flocks of new users are enticed to return to the nest.” Martin adds that “even when Facebook and MySpace were emerging networks like Twitter is now, their retention rates were twice as high.”

But there is some skepticism about the Nielsen data. Nielsen is “likely overstating the churn because it is only measuring visits to the,” writes Peter Kafka of All Things Digital. "The majority of Twitter use happens away from the site, on mobile phones and apps like Tweetdeck, and it’s theoretically possible to be an avid Twitterer but never visit after you sign up."

Background: The evolution of Twitter

Oprah’s recent arrival on Twitter points to one recipe for the site’s success: the presence of knowledgeable and influential people who may encourage other users to have a knowledgeable and influential presence themselves. When Twitter was seven months old and had 100,000 users, Time wrote that “the fawning attention” to the site “has come full-circle as reviewers have begun to realize how boring most people's lives really are.”

Since then, however, Twitter has shifted away from being a question of “What are you doing?” to “What are you doing, reading, thinking and watching?” In sharing breaking news, videos, celebrity tweets, analysis, comments and questions with one another, Twitter’s users are driving traffic out from Twitter, sometimes to their own ventures, but often just to content they find useful or interesting.

As a Hitwise survey noted in March, “a higher share of downstream clicks from go to blogs and personal websites than from search sites, social networks, or email services,” ReadWriteWeb reported. “A larger number of Twitter users are also being sent to news and media sites.”

In positioning itself, the site may continue to pitch itself as a “means for people to subscribe to one another's tidbits of life,” as PC World put it. Still, “Twitter can be a useful way to alert people to new information,” especially when networks are fostered and more users realize that valuable organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually use Twitter.

Those who are leaving Twitter may simply be bogged down by the crowd or the site’s technology. Or they don’t have the time to find people, read tweets and contribute their voice to the crowd in a way that’s heard. As Nielsen Online CEO John Burbank was quoted as saying by The Wall Street Journal, “[U]sers are waiting for it to add more of a clear-cut benefit to their lives.”

Reference: Making the most of Twitter

There are numerous Twitter applications and Web-based services that are helping to bring the site’s “clear-cut benefit” to more people. Directories help users find types of people to connect with on Twitter, and desktop applications make it easier to tweet, send replies and group people you follow. FindingDulcinea’s blog post, “Essential Twitter Advice, Apps and Tools,” can help you get started.

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