As a concept, Twitter is brilliant, revolutionizing communication worldwide with its simple concept of sharing short messages. As a company, it continues to disappoint me with its mediocre technology and its poor customer service.
Readers of this blog know that I am an enthusiastic and tireless advocate for Twitter as a journalism tool. The Twitter category on my blog has more than 100 entries, the second most-used category on this blog.
Early in my days using Twitter (early 2008), the company had trouble keeping up with the growth of its service. The “fail whale” was a regular feature and a running joke among the tweeps.
We were patient, though, because we liked the service. You don’t see the whale as often, but I regularly get messages apologizing because tweets can’t load at that moment. They still fail; they just don’t show the whale.
I don’t know all (or any) of the technology demands that Twitter faces to keep up with the incredible traffic it has and the incredible number of users. But I have to say that I don’t recall such frequent technology failures from Facebook or Google. In fact, I can’t recall Google ever not working for me. And, except the iPad app, which has been buggy, I’m hard-pressed to remember a Facebook tech failure.
Twitter compounds its tech problems with bad customer service. A few times through the years I’ve tried to complain about a customer issue, and it’s just pointless. I have recollections of going to the “help” page and having trouble finding any answers or any contact info. It had been a while since I looked, though, so I thought I’d go back to see how the help page looks now. Check out the screen shot below of the “Twitter Help Center.” Seriously?
I was flabbergasted on Sept. 11, 2011, when Jeff Jarvis’ powerful tweets reliving that horrible day 10 years earlier was interrupted by Twitter limit on how frequently you can tweet. I appreciate that Twitter needs some limits for spammers, but for crying out loud, Jeff has more than 80,000 followers. He shouldn’t be limited. (Hitting the rate limit was one of the issues that prompted my frustrating attempts to contact Twitter.)
I had some hope when Twitter hired a staff a couple years ago to deal with media. But they have not been helpful in my limited dealings.
Last summer, Mandy Jenkins and I taught a social media and reporting course for Georgetown University. We had several guest speakers join us, mostly for brief conversations by Skype or in person. Key officials from Tumblr, Facebook and Storify spoke to the class. I also asked the Erica Anderson of the Twitter media team if she or one of her colleagues could talk to the class. She blew me off with a list of elementary resources as if I didn’t know anything about Twitter. (Our full email exchange is cut and pasted at the end of this post.)
Recently when I was discussing some community engagement challenges with Angi Carter of the New Haven Register, Angi told me that she had recently gotten messages that she had hit the limit on how many people she could follow. I told her I would take the issue up with Twitter’s media team.
Chloe and Robin,
Angi Carter (@ReachAngi) … is encountering a problem I haven’t heard of before: Twitter tells her occasionally that she can’t follow any more people because she has hit some sort of limit. If you look at her Twitter stream, you will see that she is engaging appropriately and isn’t anything like a spammer. In fact, she has nearly as many followers (2,013) as she is following (2,214). Could you look into this and give her whatever permission she needs to engage freely with the community? Or steer me to the right contacts at Twitter for this issue? Thanks,
Chloe’s answer Friday, Oct. 26, would have fit in a tweet:
Hey Steve, you can understand why we impose these limits here: https://support.twitter.com/articles/66885-i-can-t-follow-people-follow-limits
Great. Steer me to a FAQ that pretty much says tough luck. Here’s what Twitter says at that link:
Twitter has imposed reasonable limits to help prevent system strain and limit abuse. If you hit a technical limit, we’ll tell you by showing an error message in your browser when you try to perform an action. You can find information on our current Update, DM, and API Requests on this About Twitter Limits help page.
We do not limit the number of people who can follow you, but we have put limits on how many other accounts you can follow.
Every account can follow 2,000 users total. Once you’ve followed 2,000 users, there are limits to the number of additional users you can follow. This number is different for each account and is based on your ratio of followers to following; this ratio is not published. Follow limits cannot be lifted by Twitter and everyone is subject to follow limits, even high profile and API accounts.
In addition to this account-based limit, every Twitter account is technically unable to follow more than 1,000 users per day. Please note that this is just a technical limit to prevent egregious abuse from spam accounts.
I applaud the daily limit; sensible limits to curb spammers are necessary. But someone with 2,000 followers is not a spammer. Angi is making a strong effort to engage her community. Twitter should not be inhibiting her responsible use of their product. Can you imagine hitting a search-limit on Google?
Even more difficult to understand is the brush-off. My request on Angi’s part was reasonable. As a Twitter user, not to mention a longtime Twitter advocate, I deserved a better explanation and a more courteous answer.
My response to Chloe:
No, I can’t understand, and I can’t understand why you would send an un-helpful one-sentence, one-link response to a sincere request for help. I have not yet blogged my view that Twitter’s success comes in spite of the company’s consistent and puzzling failures, but when I do, I will cite this limitation and your absurd response, presuming that I understand and not bothering to explain. To limit someone with as many followers as Angi has from following more is absurd. You can understand why Twitter’s repeated poor service annoys me.
I remain an enthusiastic user of Twitter. However poor the execution, the concept remains brilliant. I will try to work around its regrettable limitations, just as I work with the shortsighted failings of the newspaper business. I’ll tweet a link to this blog post right after I publish it. I have tweeted more than 23,000 times, and expect I’ll tweet at least that many more. I hope Twitter remains successful. I think better technology and better customer service would help ensure that.
My message to Erica Anderson, May 24:
We’re trying to get guest experts in to join the discussion on some of our topics. We’re planning a Twitter overview (students have not been using it much), a breaking news class, which will, of course, be strong on Twitter, and some other classes with strong Twitter presence. Would love to have you (or Chloe or Robin, if you can’t or if you or they prefer) join us by Skype or Twitter chat (or in person, if someone’s going to be in DC). We’ll shoot you some questions in advance, but some would come from students. Interested in your views on some of the best (and worst) ways journos are using Twitter, etc.
I’m on the train now. Call at 703-474-0382 if you want to discuss. Thanks,
Erica’s first response, also May 24:
Steve – We’d love to help if schedules permit. Next Tuesday is a bit early as I need to run this by people. Can yo please provide an alternative date (as you suggested in June) and I’ll get it through for you and 99 percent sure I can do it.
My answer, also May 24:
Probably the 7th or 14th. We want to do Twitter fairly early in the class. Most of the students are on it, but not big users.
Erica’s next response, also May 24:
Steve,This is a great idea and I would love to help. However I think if the students aren’t that familiar with the platform already it might make more sense for them to get ramped up with that and then they might value a Q&A with Twitter even more….For a Twitter 101 – here is what I suggest:
- Overview of Twitter – Great content in Twitter Basics such as notes on Search, Features, Guidelines and Glossary.
- How to use Search
- Search is one of the most important ways journalists use Twitter. Have them test out the search function as well as Advanced Search. They can read about how to use it here.
- Breaking News
- Best Practices – Pull up the timelines, scroll through. Point out the filled-out bio, link and professional personality.
- Jake Tapper (He uses Twitter to find sources)
- Liz Heron (Social Media Editor at the Times)
- @sultanalqassemi (Freelancer who has used Twitter to elevate his content, apart from having a big company back him.)
- The Emerging Ecosystem
- Storify and Storyful – just two of the examples of new companies that have popped up to support journalists and citizens make sense of information that breaks on Twitter and other social media platforms.Also, encourage them to set up their mobile devices. Here is the official download page. (Journalists Tweet on the fly!)Hope that helps and sorry I can’t make this one!Hope this and the new job is going well,Erica
New job is going well.
Perhaps I didn’t make clear what we’re looking for in our guest speakers. Mandy and I have both been teaching journalists how to use Twitter for more than two years. We’re not looking for your help teaching them Twitter. We started on that last week and will be continuing through the summer. As with almost any group of journalists, some are novices and some are experienced. We are looking for the guest speakers to share their particular experiences and perspectives with the class. We had Mark Coatney of Tumblr and will have Burt Herman of Storify and expect to get Vadim Lavrusik of Facebook. We also have Liz Heron, Amanda Michel of Pro Publica and Sree Sreenivasan of Columbia lined up and expect to get Andy Carvin of NPR. We’d like to include someone from Twitter in the mix.
If you can help us out, let us know. June 7 or 14 would work well for us, but we might be able to make another date work. Thanks,
Everyone cited in the email except for Carvin did show up in person or by Skype to help the class, along with a few others. Erica never answered that message. (I’m emailing the Twitter staff members mentioned here, inviting them to respond.)