Is Twitter the Next Second Life?

I’m sorry if I’m about to offend all you dedicated Twitter fanatics out there, but (in the spirit of the holidays) I’m just a big old Scrooge. Articles about Twittering for business make me want to shout “Bah humbug!” and turn off my computer so I can run screaming into the night.

For the past year or so I’ve kept silent on this issue, but it now seems like there’s an extraordinary parallel between the hype about using Twitter for business and the hype about Second Life and other now-embarrassing fads in the online press.

Remember Second Life? Lots of companies spent big bucks setting up their own islands in the 3-D virtual world so they could do virtual business and rake in the cash. Unfortunately, between protestors who didn’t like their chat room sullied with filthy lucre and commercial interests and the sad fact that there’s a huge gap between the number of registered users on the site and the number of people who actually use it on a regular basis. Though Second Life seemed like the next big thing, most people who registered for the service used it only once or twice.

It seems the Twitter user gap is pretty large, too. While there are millions of registered users on the service, there are only about 200,000 active users each week sending about 3 million tweets per day, or 21 million tweets per week. Sure they like making themselves heard (those statistics average out to 105 tweets per active user!), but who are they talking to?

Based on Quantcast stats, they’re mainly talking to other young, white, or Asian folks with lots of education, no children, and not a lot of income. That’s not a totally fair statement though. There’s a fairly large chunk of Twitter users in the $100,000-plus household income range. They just don’t seem to be the norm.

And according to these same Quantcast numbers, the vast majority of the audience (74 percent) are passersby who don’t spend much time on the service. Only 1 percent are addicts, who make up a whopping 34 percent of all the visits to the service.

There’s no doubt that a lot of people like Twitter and even stop by and check things out once in a while. And there’s certainly no doubt that a lot of Twitterers spend an inordinate amount of time on the service. But as for using Twitter as a business tool, especially if you’re not in an Internet-related business? I don’t think so.

Why? Because those 200,000 active users make up just 0.07 percent of the total U.S. population. Twitter might be all the rage among the technorati with lots of time on their hands, but most consumers don’t give a tweet about the service.

Sure, many in the online business press have gotten pretty jacked up about the ability to send short messages about the state of their meals or what airport they happen to be stuck in (and have even put together some pretty funny parodies about the service), but statistics show that if you’re in a business that’s not targeted at the young/hip/bored/student demographic, Twitter probably won’t mean tweet when it comes to helping your business.

Worse than that, it might make you look like you’ve got too much time on your hands. As a colleague of mine pointed out in June, if my PR person (whom I’m paying by the hour, by the way) was Tweeting all day long, I’d wonder why the heck he wasn’t actually out there working for me. It’s kind of like the guy who sends all the “nifty links” at your office: at one time it may have made him look like he had his finger on the pulse of the Internet, but now it just broadcasts the fact that he doesn’t have much to do.

Look, I obviously have no problem with technology. And yeah, I’m definitely an early adopter and probably a prime target for Twitter. But I’ve also been around long enough to recognize that hype doesn’t equal useful when it comes to applying a new technology.

Don’t forget, the people writing most of the glowing reviews about Twitter are probably its most avid users and are therefore part of a hermetically sealed group that lacks perspective. People who write about technology online are paid (well, “paid” might sometimes be a relative term) to write about online technology and to be the first to use it. Pumping a new technology makes them look smarter and raises their street cred because it gets others to use it and makes them (and I’ll even include myself in the “them” here) look like they got the scoop before everyone else.

Unfortunately, numbers don’t lie. While Twitter might be a great way for a small group of folks to pass notes back and forth to each other, it’s hardly the next big thing when it comes to building your business online or promoting your company, unless your company sells to the people who use Twitter.

Heck, going by the numbers, Internet meme-generating chat board 4chan has more regular users and a larger audience. However, I’ve yet to see any business magazine write about it as “the next big way to build relationships with your customers.”

Don’t believe the hype.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.