Should Twitter — or its investors — care about all the people who never tweet?

Ghost town

Like most companies, Twitter is happy to put out numbers that make the service look as popular as possible, like the 240 million or so figure it uses for “active” users, defined as anyone who logs in at least once a month. But it rarely talks about what many see as the most important number, namely the number who actually tweet — which is probably why estimates like the most recent one from Twopcharts, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal, has gotten a lot of attention: it says 44 percent of accounts have never posted a single tweet.

As many people have pointed out — including Twopcharts itself — this kind of data is problematic at best, in part because it is based on fuzzy estimates rather than data that comes directly from Twitter. It’s also difficult to figure out how many of the almost 1 billion accounts that Twopcharts says have been created since Twitter began were created by users who signed up again under another name.

That said, however, the idea that Twitter has a billion or so accounts, but only 200 million of those users even sign in once a month (let alone post a tweet) and almost half have never posted a single status update seems somewhat troubling. But should it be? And if it is, what should Twitter do about it?

Is Twitter still too hard to use?

We don’t expect everyone who reads blogs to have one, nor do we expect everyone who reads a book to have written one — but Twitter has always seemed different, in part because it is so easy to post a tweet. And yet, for anyone who follows the science of social networks, it’s not surprising that Twitter would fit the 90-9-1 ratio, in which the vast majority of users simply consume.

There’s at least some evidence that Twitter is concerned about this number, because senior executives of the company have talked a number of times about moving the “scaffolding” of Twitter into the background somehow — by which it means the machinery that can often be confusing for new users, like the @ symbol or the hashtag or the retweet, or the fact that you sometimes have to use a period in front of your tweet so that everyone will see it.

The number Twitter seems the most concerned about, however, is the overall user number — the one that caused some mild panic among shareholders and investors when Twitter admitted in its first-ever earnings conference call that it was flattening.

Getting that figure — and the active-user figure — to grow is the reason why Twitter has been adding features and redesigns like a mad thing recently. Everything from experiments like @MagicRecs (which doesn’t seem to have performed very well) to the addition of new Facebook-style profile designs seem intended to make the service more appealing for new users. But there is still much work to be done, if the comments on a recent WSJ piece are any indication:

Twitter comments WSJ

Twitter needs to broaden its reach

Twitter is also clearly concerned — as it should be — about the difficulty of finding new people or accounts to follow, and sorting through the massive amount of content that comes from half a billion tweets a day. That seems to be the rationale behind the company’s acquisition of Cover, a small startup that was working on an adaptive home-screen for Android devices, one which changed what it showed users based on their environment, time of day, etc.

Just as Google is trying to do with Google Now, Twitter needs to get better at surfacing content automatically, without waiting for users to click and say that they are interested in a specific tag or keyword. The service’s “Discover” tab is relentlessly pathetic at this, despite the time and resources that Twitter has devoted to it — which could explain why two of the main designers responsible for that feature recently left the company.

In the end, the number of people who actually post a tweet is always going to be a relatively small fraction of the overall user figure. That’s not to say Twitter shouldn’t be concerned about non-tweeters, but it has much larger fish to fry. It needs to figure out why some people don’t use Twitter at all — why they sign up and then never return. What can it do to convince them to stay? It’s not clear that imitating Facebook is going to work, but it has to do something.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Shutterstock / Tim Stirling

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