Twitter is a 1978 Fax Machine – Metcalfe’s Law and The Twitter Nielsen Data

May 2nd, 2009 by Will Scott

First things first: this post is a bit of inside baseball – it may be conceptually interesting but it likely won’t help you market your business.

Metcalfes Law And The Network Effect

Metcalfe's Law And The Network Effect

What’s interesting to me about the recent Nielsen data regarding “Twitter Quitters” is that it makes a prediction based on current data without looking at how this technology is like others before it.  Surely Nielsen

doesn’t have data on adoption of all technologies since the beginning of time, but if they thought a little harder they might find some similarities.  Or perhaps they just want the attention of controversy.

Metcalfe’s Law

states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.

The most common illustration of this is the fax machine.  One fax machine = paperweight, two fax machines = dialog, ubiquitous fax machines = global communications in the pre-email era.

So what’s the point?

My contention is this: Twitter (per the Nielsen data) is a 1978 fax machine. If you had one you thought you were really cool, but the reality is you were probably only impressing yourself.

If you’re not aware of the concern, here’s a little background:

Fax Machines - Theyre Everywhere

Fax Machines - They're Everywhere

I mean think about it.  If you’re not one who is naturally tapped into online communication you sign up, cruise around without an instruction manual or map and it’s boring.  “Where to now?” you must think.  Then the phone rings, the teapot whistles or the dog barks and you’re outta there.

Unless you’re already in the know it’s hard to find the great resources there are out there:

It’s no wonder there’s a 60% dropoff rate.

If you believe TechCrunch, at the end of April there were a few more than 1 million users of Twitter with only around 200,000 really active.

From TC :

March 2008

  • Total Users: 1+ million
  • Total Active Users: 200,000 per week
  • Total Twitter Messages: 3 million/day

So let’s look at that in context.  With around 1 million users worldwide 40% of whom are in the U.S. that means that only about 400,000 U.S. folks are on twitter.

Its Lonely Out There

It's Lonely Out There

So… if you’re not one of those 400,000 you’re one of the other 299,600,000, or thereabouts, U.S. folks who aren’t yet on Twitter.  That means you’re not one of the 13/100ths of 1 percent who are already hip.

That’s a really small number.  I mean really small.  You might be lonely.

So, I come back to likening Twitter to a 1978 fax machine.  Currently Twitter lacks mass utility — so did a fax machine in 1978.  Where’s the fax now?

The Fax is ubiquitous


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