‘My very best gag about [X] and not a single retweet? You lot don’t deserve me!’ – another day, another person on my timeline.
They may seem cheerfully self-deprecating, but under the faux outrage of those tweets there bristles a real insecurity (I’ve decided) about their place on the platform, and the future of Twitter.
After all, nobody retweets anymore. Favouriting had a short run as an inferior replacement, but even that’s been scuppered by Twitter’s decision to start showing up other people’s favourites in our timelines. Of course, when I say ‘nobody’ I just mean ‘not as many people’, and when I say ‘anymore’ I just mean ‘in my own narrow experience’ – but still, others are finding the same thing. I know, because I asked on Twitter.
It’s not just retweets either. The rate at which we’re accumulating new followers feels distinctly slower than it did back in the glory days of 2009-2011. I’m branding it an ‘old tweeter’s problem’, affecting mainly those of us who have been active on the site for a good few years. It’s the digital equivalent of ‘I remember when this was ALL FIELDS’, but I remember the days when a single retweet from a well-followed journo would get you about 50 new followers overnight.
‘THIS IS IT!’ you would think, ‘The start of my giddy rise to fame! By this time next year you’ll have an advance on a witty toilet book!’ These days, not so much.
‘There’s definitely a slowing of follower numbers,’ agrees journalist and Twitter stalwart Rhodri Marsden. ‘My tweets are as irrelevant/inconsequential as they’ve always been, but in the past I’d notice a steady accumulation, a few dozen [new followers] every week, while these days I just about gain slightly more than I lose.’
Likewise my own follower count has hovered stubbornly just below 3,000 for the past year, despite plenty of shameless putting myself about online. Not that I CARE, you understand, it just all feels a little… stagnant (don’t unfollow me now, I beg). But it’s fair enough, because I’m following fewer new people too. And if those of us with no investment in Twitter except ego are feeling our engagement tail off, let’s spare a thought for the brands pouring money into their social campaigns and seeing little return.
So, why? Why do I feel less compelled to reach for the RT button than I did two or three years ago? Why are celebrity shout-outs worth only a few measly new followers these days?
The simplest diagnosis is volume. More tweeters in our timeline means more pithy opinions to engage with, which means we have to be more selective about what we RT and who we newly follow. Or as Shiny Shiny’s own Diane Shipley puts it, ‘more of us are shouting into the void’, so it stands to reason that our voices all get a little less attention.
There’s the inevitable rise and fall of a network’s popularity too. Twitter’s overall user growth slowed significantly in 2013, while brands in many different areas have reported a slump in the rate they’re acquiring new followers (this study of publishers, for one). Recent revelations over the move to manipulated, Facebook-style timelines had a few of us speculating about the site’s motives – is falling engagement one of them?
‘My retweets have increased with my followers, but not in the same ratio,’ says PR and food critic Ravi Pau, who believes we’re still engaged, but just more discerning. ‘I’m still as likely to give somebody a follow, but I’m also much more likely to unfollow them if their content is terrible.’
There’s also the idea that Twitter favours experts and spokespeople over funny nobodies, in a way it didn’t so much a few years ago. ‘I’ve picked up more followers due to writing more online this year – though a fair few are brands,’ says Diane. And when I think about my own following habits, it rings true. I’ve built up a timeline full of more witty commentators than I could ever need for gags about the weather or communal X Factor viewings, but I am still likely to follow brands I want offers from, social campaigners, interesting projects or (fickle as I am) people who might give me work.
Meanwhile other users find a smaller circle makes for a better, less competitive experience. ‘I enjoy the tweets of the 230 or so I follow and don’t feel the need to explore as much as I used to’, says Amaia Arranz, while Rhodri thinks ‘the obsession with metrics, with reach, with making some kind of ephemeral impact.. is the main thing that stops Twitter being enjoyable. It’s like everyone’s pursuing the unattainable. You cannot “win” Twitter.’
He’s right, of course. While most of us know (deep down at least) that no number of retweets or celebrity follows will grant us a dream career or a deep personal happiness, it’s also worth remembering that not everyone feels like they’re losing, either. As frequent users like myself are reminded every time a friend replies to a tweet that’s four days old, not everyone has such saturated timelines.
No, the golden era I so mistily remember wasn’t a golden era for everybody – and even if the glory days of hashtag games and Stephen Fry’s lift mishaps are over, more recent joiners will all put the network to their own, slightly different purposes.
As Rhodri points out: ‘that “golden era” is different for everyone, and it could well be that thousands or even millions of people are experiencing that on Twitter right now. They’ve hit that perfect, manageable following ratio and everything feels great.’
I do hope that’s true. Pls RT.
Do you feel like retweets and new follows have decreased, or are you enjoying your own Golden Era on Twitter? Let us know in the comments below, or @shinyshiny.
Image: Rosaura Ochoa
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