Has Twitter Hit A Ceiling in Higher Ed?

Posted by Brad J. Ward | Posted in Higher Education, Research, Thoughts, Twitter | Posted on 10-14-2010


The other day, Evan Williams from Twitter commented that ‘Twitter will get to a billion members‘.

I’ll talk to that in a moment, but I want to give you some background on my thought process first. If you want to skip straight to the data, see the lower sections.

Why don’t you tweet anymore?

I get asked about Twitter a lot. Sometimes in regards to my personal (declining) use of the tool.  Often, it’s about Twitter for marketing or recruitment.  I used to be excited about the possibilities of this tool but as of late, it’s probably apparent that I’ve dramatically changed my thoughts on it.

There are a few simple reasons why I’ve cut back.  For one, I have thoughts longer than 140 characters that I want to share. Tweets can quickly get taken out of context at this character limit, so I find myself expressing thoughts and opinions on other platforms instead, where I have more room. I also think that ‘sharing’ can be beneficial, but in a large group it hampers innovation. And that’s what I often see on Twitter. (Which, ironically, was my last blog post here in August.) You can be “working” all day, and yet not accomplish anything at all.

I’ve also read a few books that have made me re-think a lot of my digital life. Here are a few quotes that resonate with me:

–” The more connected we are, the more we depend on the world outside ourselves to tell us how to think and live.”

– “We’re losing something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word: depth.  Depth of thought and feeling, depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do.  Since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it’s astounding that we’re allowing this to happen.”

– “The goal is not longer to be ‘in touch’ but to erase the possibility of ever being out of touch. [...] Although we think of our screens as productivity tools, they actually undermine the serial focus that’s the essence of true productivity. And the faster and more intense our connectedness becomes, the further we move away from that ideal.  Digital busyness is the enemy of depth.”

– “When a crowd adopts a point of view en masse, all critical thinking effectively stops.”

– “By virtue of its interactivity, the digital medium is a source of constant confirmation that yes, you do indeed exist and matter. Thus we’re forced to go back again and again for verification. Who dropped my name? Are there any comments on my comments? Who’s paying attention to me now?”

Quotes from Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers

There’s quite a bit to unpack here.  But it boils down to this for me: I’m in the knowledge industry. (You probably are too.)  My job to think and implement.  When I impede the process of thinking and learning, I become less valuable.  The opportunity cost of spending excessive amounts of time on Twitter is too great. It took me nearly a year to learn this. To paraphrase another great book, I want to go where my competitors don’t go and read what they don’t read.  That just doesn’t happen on Twitter. I no longer look there for verification either. I don’t care how many people follow me (although we will look at this data next). I also don’t care how many RSS subscribers I have.  I want deeper, more meaningful thoughts and interactions instead. I seek verification through a successful client project, not a single tweet.


On a side note, I’d also encourage you to take a moment to read what Joel Goodman says about the state of higher ed web. There is great value in contrarian opinions.

Has Twitter Hit a Ceiling?

Now, to finally expand on the original topic of this post.  Twitter and 1 billion members. My response? Not Likely, and only if the growth is in international countries.  At a conference earlier this year I responded to a question about Twitter’s growth as follows:

You’re either on Twitter, or you’re so sick of hearing people talk about it that at this point, you’ll never join it.

This would not be the case in countries where Twitter has not taken off, leaving  potential growth there.

We know Twitter is great for one-to-many communication. And breaking news. And listening to your customers. I get all that.

Facebook sits at 500 million users, with approximately 70% of users outside of the USA. Twitter sits at 100 million users, and I honestly see no direct way for them to reach 1 billion members. Realistically, I think Twitter is approaching the end of its growth cycle.

That’s the world.  Let’s talk about Higher Ed.

My follower numbers on Twitter have essentially crawled to a halt. It might be because I don’t use it as much, or because I don’t seek validation there, but I think the biggest reason is that Twitter has hit a ceiling in higher ed.

[I'm talking about professional/personal usage by employees in the industry here, not our audience's usage. But on that side of things, BlueFuego tracked nearly 2,500 higher ed accounts in 2009 and many were seeing 50-100% growth month over month over month. We stopped research in early 2010 because growth was slowing very rapidly.]

2009 was a huge year for Twitter usage/adoption in the higher ed community. But, I think everyone who is hereis here. This is our community. There will be some people that filter in and out of the industry, but for the most part, we are our audience at this point. We’ll slowly grow, and may actually decline, but the cast has been set.

To confirm my thoughts, I started looking at data of other users in higher ed.  I pulled the 3 month growth rate of the 50 most influential people in higher ed (determined by WeFollow.com) using TwitterCounter. I also split the audience into 3 areas: Student Affairs, Marketing/PR, and Blog/News/Company.

You can see all of the data here

The list shows that higher ed blog/news/company accounts continue to see strong follower growth (an average of 17%).  There is the underlying incentive for them to grow an audience: more traffic, more ads, more business, etc.

The student affairs crowd in higher ed has seen an average of 11% growth since July 15th. And for good reason.  They are a very strong group.  #SAChat (article) is allowing student affairs professionals to find each other and connect.

Then, we have “the rest of us”.   The marketers, the bloggers, etc. Average growth for us: 5%.  We’re a bit different than student affairs.  SA already has their students and wants to help each other communicate with them better.  We… well, we’re competing for students and might not want to share quite as much to everyone. :)

If we haven’t hit the ceiling yet, we’re approaching it.  Either fewer people are joining, or we’re less likely to follow others.  I acknowledge that there are a wide range of variables that come in to play, but I think it’s quite clear that we’re at the top of the rollercoaster ride, and it’s only a matter of time until it heads back down the slope.

I’ll never have 4,000 followers on Twitter. I might never even reach 3,500. And you know what? I’m fine with that.

Because I need to do a better job at connecting with the 3,300 that are already there.

Which makes me think about my (your) job.

At what point do we stop investing all our time and resources in growing these new online communities and focus more on who’s already listening?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Comments posted (19)

Let me pick a few things apart:

You said you stopped twittering, then you show a table that has your follower count unchanged. Have you thought these things might be related?

@ericstoller has seen huge growth in the last three months, but a lot of that is because thanks to Twitter (and other ways he’s been present in the higher ed community) he’s now blogging at Inside Higher Ed. Eric has always been multi-channel, and I think it really helped him get that better job.

Higher ed is a small niche, especially when it comes to social media in higher ed. 3000 may well be the bolus of followers where you’ve had full market penetration. I don’t know. At HighEdWeb I sat at breakfast with a table full of older higher ed folk who were disdainful of Twitter… and then turned to me to ask about MY Twitter usage (having noticed my description in the program). I made some good points, but end of the day, if it’s not working for them, it’s not working for them.

Twitter is a sonic screwdriver. It’s a tool that can be whatever you want it to be. That’s what makes it great and valuable, in my mind. If it’s not working for you, then find the tools that will work for you. But don’t look at its limitations and argue it’s not valuable because of that. People have been doing the same thing about blogs all year long, and last I looked people were still writing long-form and sharing ideas that way. They just put the links on Twitter for their followers to come comment on their posts. :)

The follower thing….You’re comparing two things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other. There’s not a direct correlation…there are other explanations you could eliminate. I think you’re kind of taking the data and making it say what you want, rather than really looking at it. I also question the timeframe…why three months? What does that mean? What is overall growth rate? We don’t have anything to compare to to dissect what is good or bad. At this point, these numbers are really meaningless to me….do this over time and I might become more interested. I could also rant and rave about the quotes you cited…but not today. I’ve already digressed…

I don’t know man. I think the most ironic part of your post is when you talk about making connections with those around following you….I think that’s hard when you’re not engaged with the community. And no, I don’t mean following back (although that is certainly part of it). Tweet, don’t tweet…whatever. But when you’re not tweeting I become a bit skeptical when you make statements about wanting to connect with those already following you.

@Dylan – Agreed. I had something about that but took those lines out to reduce length. The number *has* changed, but I think the ceiling is there. I got 10-15 new followers this month from the UCDA conference, but 10-15 more filtered out as well. It’s a rotating door effect, I guess.

Eric has definitely leveraged the Stoller Coaster, and has seen great growth for that!

@Karlyn – 3 months is a limitation of TwitterCounter. I checked Twitterholic, etc. and no one had longer data. But graph anyone’s follower rate over time and it’s certain to be at/near the ‘maturity’ area: http://is.gd/g2dp9

Most of this is just from my head and watching growth/industry over time. If you continue to graph in the next 3-6 months, you’ll see similar or lower growth. It’s peaked. Hit the ceiling. That’s my personal thought and the point of the post. I think anyone with sense could look at those numbers and realize their follower # used to grow much more quickly.

Regarding connecting with those already there, it was a forward looking statement. I’m looking forward to reconnecting while not traveling for the next 4-5 months. Looking to the future, not the past. :) The last thing on my mind while spending 47 of the last 60 nights in a hotel was “I really need to get on Twitter and spend an hour talking to people.” It was “I need to get some freaking sleep, answer these emails, and prepare for tomorrow’s site visit/conference/workshop.” Priorities and balance, as with all things in life!

Some long term data for you, Karlyn:


While, again, not full data, graph it all out and you’d see the ceiling.

honestly, i don’t really care about my follower data….or anyone else’s really. there are far more explanations for following numbers growing or not other than those presented here…the use of the tool and its features have also evolved. you don’t have to follow someone to follow them on a list or whatever.

not knocking you for not tweeting….like i said, tweet, or tweet, who cares….i hope you reconnect with the community again like you say. but we’re all busy man ;-)

Sounds good! I’m also sharing these thoughts for the larger implications and trends, this isn’t just about me. :)

To the point about blogging and tweeting, I think depth vs. brevity is a false comparison. I don’t see the two as being diametrically opposed — that you’re either tweeting 140-character inanity *or* you’re blogging the next great American idea. How many times have I seen Twitter conversations generate an awesome blog post? How many times does someone tweet a nugget that grows into an idea that is best explored in long form — or, by reading someone else’s nugget, get an idea that is further explored in a blog or article. Every oak comes from an acorn. And once you have that idea down in a blog post, Twitter can help it get shared with others. Also, some people do great work but just *aren’t* writers. They can share “Hey, I did X using A, B and C and accomplished Y, yay!” via Twitter, and that’s fine. It can start a conversation.

I think the real barometer is value, not depth. Where are you gaining value? Where are you providing value? And what does “value” mean to you — it’s different for everyone. You can find value on Twitter, and you can find value on a blog. And you can also find crap via both. I haven’t read the book you reference, but from those quotes, it seems that the author holds a point of view that the people immersed in social streams are more focused on their own brand and ego, afraid of disconnection and highly susceptible to groupthink. And I’m sure some are — just as there are authors and magazine writers guilty of much the same.

Twitter: Now entering the Trough of Disillusionment!!


“When a crowd adopts a point of view en masse, all critical thinking effectively stops.” … That sounds like a description of stereotypes. Nothing new there. The speed and breadth of information dissemination is new though.

I think it’s natural for many of us to be burning out with Twitter – we’ve been on it since the very beginning and due to the nature of what we do, so have many of our colleagues and friends in this industry.

We’ve been very focused on things like follow counts because that’s a metric that we can show our bosses to say “hey, this is working.” To a VP or higher, saying to them ‘we have 500 followers’ is better than saying our last message was retweeted 50 times. They don’t know what that means. That makes it hard to measure and value the depth of the conversation, as Georgy noted above.

I’ll admit that I did caught up in the followers game for awhile. It was important to me to get to 100, then 200, then 500 followers. As I watched people get to 1,000 then 2,000 and on up, I realized that I don’t have the time, energy or knack for self-promotion on mediums like these that others do. That was a good lesson to learn.

This week in Cincy, I saw the value of Twitter when it comes to conferences and backchannel conversations. Thanks to hashtags, etc it really is a great way to collect and archive conversations and resources based around a certain event.

I’ll tell you why I stopped. I stopped because it seemed I was tweeting into the unknown. It used to be that I could connect with people, ask a question, and gets some really good feedback. Now, if I ask a question, 99.9% of the time it gets lost in the noise, and it goes unanswered. I eventually just gave up. The more followers I get and the more people I follow, the harder it was to stay in the conversation, not to mention the more time it took. It’s simply easier to fire off an email and wait for a response than to tweet something that might have the word education in it and all of a sudden I have 5 more “followers” because of it. I guess you could say twitter used to have value to me. Now, I’m a little unsure of what that value is – that’s something I don’t need numbers for.

What happens when we think a tool is going to be useful for marketing but ends up just being useful for regular old communication?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Twitter (it’s a tool) – I think we can be too optimistic and hopeful that something is going to catch on. When it doesn’t serve the purpose we wanted or thought it would we leave it behind for the next thing.

It’s all in the framing and context.

Twitter is a playground I take my kids to… they’re free to play with whomever they choose.

I like sharing and learning from many different types of people, not just the higher ed crowd (although they do kick ass). Therefore, my growth isn’t limited to a false ceiling, but a sky filled with dreams and hopes and sh!tting birds.

I miss you on twitter. But I understand why I don’t need to understand why you’ve left. However, if you’re ever up late with a newborn, I’m usually awake. Just ask Adam.

It’s certainly interesting to see how tools develop over time. Something I shared at UCDA a few weeks ago was a quick story about the telephone.

In Europe, it was initially marketed as something you could use to listen to live performances and operas “from the convenience of your own home!!!!11″

Boy, how far it has come along!

I don’t think these tools are mutually exclusive. Just as some ideas require more than 140 characters, some do not require 500 words or >140 characters. Maybe not everyone is consciously choosing the right tool for the right communication of a given idea.

Choosing between Twitter and blogging is like choosing between blogging and vlogging. Some prefer one or the other, some use both.

Also, I was keeping an eye out for this post because you teased it in a tweet. (Even though I knew it would show up in my feed reader.)

Using Twitter does not have to equal wasting time. If it is too noisy, you are following too many of not the right people. It is time to make hard choices about weeding your following list. Remember when I had a limit of 50, or 60? I’ve slowly grown to 114 and it is definitely getting a little noisy. I know that number must sound quaint to some of you, but Twitter would be worthless to me with too many more. The number is whatever works for each of us, but if it is too noisy, you need a smaller number.

Also, there is a time for Twitter and a time to get stuff done.

To the point about blogging and twitter, I think, depth vs. Brevity is a false comparison. I do not see the two as diametrically opposed – that you either tweeting 140 characters * * stupidity or you’re blogging is the next great American idea. How many times I’ve seen Twitter conversations create a wonderful blog? How often someone Tweet a nugget that is growing in an idea that is best studied in the long form – or Nugget by reading someone else to get an idea which is explored further in a blog or article. Each oak comes from an acorn. And if you have this idea in a blog entry, it can help Twitter get shared with others. Also, some people do great work, but * not * authors. You can share, “Hey, I have X to A, B and C and Y achieved, yay!” Via Twitter, and that’s good. It can start a conversation.

I think the real barometer value, not depth. Where are you gaining value? Where were you add value? And what does “value” means to you – it is different for everyone. You can value be found on Twitter, and you can find value in a blog. And you can also crap about both. I have not read the book on point, but cited one of which, it seems that the author of a position that people in social movements more immersed in their own brand and the ego, fear of separation and focused very susceptible to groupthink holds. And I’m sure some are – just as there are authors and writers magazine guilty of similar.

I’ve been thinking about this same topic recently as well. Over the last year, my postings have become much less frequent. I find that I always have TweetDeck open, but the content just hasn’t been interesting/compelling. I think back to your post on when you whittled down your who you follow list. The conversation has become too insular and the value to noise ratio leans heavily towards noise.

I think Twitter is a great tool, and I have learned a ton from it and met some really great people because of it. I can’t help but wonder if it has run it’s course however.

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