You may have noticed, or to the point, not have noticed my absence on this website thus far. Unlike Tom (who co-runs the successful Wannabe Hacks and Pope and Swift websites) and Steve (with his excellent blog) I have very little online experience. This is mostly down to my near-phobia of the internet, especially when it comes to socially oriented sites such as Facebook, Twitter and community blogs.
And I am not alone.
I think Twitter best illustrates the reluctance of people to participate in online communities.
Twitter now boasts around 200 million accounts and a growth rate of 370,000 new users a day. Yet 41% of users have not tweeted since they created their account and 24% have zero followers suggesting a lack of active engagement.
I remember starting my own account last September at the emphatic insistence of my online journalism tutor Gary Moscowitz . After spending half-an-hour trying to navigate the ostensibly simple-looking website I became frustrated and utterly baffled and didn’t go anywhere near the micro-blogging site for a month-and-a-half.
The reasons behind my retreat was classic – it was different: I didn’t like the interface and it wasn’t like my email account or Facebook (by then, the only two forms of online social contact I had grudgingly accepted). Also, I hardly knew anyone else using Twitter and couldn’t understand why I would want restrict myself to a 140-character Tweet – and who would want to read them.
I now follow 152 people and organisations, am followed by 81 and have tweeted 371 times. I also rely on Twitter to find out about the hot topics of the day and to meet new people and potential contacts.
Websites, especially online newspapers, are desperate to attract and keep people like myself who were once online-shy. What made the difference?
The first time I spent more than 5 minutes on Twitter came during this year’s Oscars ceremony. A huge film fan, I stayed up micro blogging into the early hours with four other tweeters (who were also “real-life” friends). It was ridiculously enjoyable and I realised what fun I could have with the net.
After becoming a blogger and live-Tweeter for the Frontline Club a few months ago I understood the extent of Twitter’s networking power. Often, during and long-after tweeting special events at the Frontline Club I ended up interacting with people I previously had no connection to. I can now delve into a growing bank of contacts whenever I need.
I’ve also used Twitter to reach out to people in pursuit of new stories. It became incredibly handy when trying to track down a source for an interview. Ringing and emailing their office, mobile and PR company all failed to get results. With a looming deadline I found his Twitter account and within 30 minutes had a reply. As part of a student based news team with the Hackney Post, we often reached out to the community and other local media for news stories.
I became a Twitter convert when I realised how I could use it for my specific interests and needs.
What’s clear is that when people have a purpose or niche-interest, websites such as Twitter become invaluable. Appealing to such people – something newspapers have tentatively attempted but without much progress –could be essential to the survival of the newspaper industry.