When 140 characters is too much

Megan Fox - Quit Twitter in January

Can Twitter keep its 232m users from feeling bored?

They loved it. Now they hate it. A growing number of celebrities, athletes, and self-promoters are burnt out and signing off of Twitter. Many have got overwhelmed. Some people built big audiences on social network only to have their followers turn against them. Others complain that tweets that once drew lots of attention now get lost in the noise.

As Twitter began trading publicly yesterday, the company was trying to sell potential investors on the idea that its user base of 232m will continue to grow along with the 500m tweets that are sent each day. The company’s revenue depends on ads it inserts into the stream of messages.

But Wall St could lose its big bet on social media if prolific tweeters lose their voice.

Evidence of Twitter burnout isn’t hard to find. Just look at the celebrities who — at one time or another — have taken a break from the service. The long list includes everyone from Alec Baldwin to Miley Cyrus to Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof. Actress Jennifer Love Hewitt lamented “all the negativity” she saw on the service when she quit, temporarily, in July. Actress Megan Fox left nearly 1m followers dangling when she checked out in January, explaining that “Facebook is as much as I can handle”. Pop star John Mayer deleted his account in 2011, saying Twitter absorbed so much of his thinking, he couldn’t write a song.

For some users, Twitter tiredness sets in slowly. At first, they enjoy seeing their tweets of 140 characters or less bounce around the web with retweets and favourites. But new connections soon get overwhelming. Obligation sets in — not only to post more, but to reply to followers and read their tweets.

The cacophony creeps into everyday life. Twitter fanatics tweet from the dinner table, during a movie, in the bathroom, in bed. Vacations can seem like time wasted not tweeting. The over-doers suffer from a “fear of missing out”, says Tom Edwards, vice-president at themarketingarm, a Dallas-based advertising agency. “Managing our virtual personas, including all of the etiquette that comes with, can be tiresome, especially for those with large followings.”

It happens even to people who ought to know better. Just ask Gary Schirr, an assistant professor who teaches a course on social media at Radford University. In August, while on holidays on a beach, Schirr felt a pang of withdrawal because he had stopped tweeting to his 70,000-plus followers. Then he saw an old condemned house about to be washed away and posted a photo to Facebook and Twitter. He felt relieved when the likes and retweets rolled in.

“You feel forgotten if you’re not out there,” he says. “It’s another sign of addiction. You feel bad if you don’t tweet.”

Prolific tweeters stay engaged partly because there are real benefits to a big following, which usually requires tweeting a lot.

Journalists who have large Twitter followings have used them to land better-paying jobs because every click on stories can make more money for their new employer. Others might tweet about what’s going on in the newsroom or promote their publications.

Meanwhile, actors can land roles if their digital audience is expected to tag along.

Matt Lewis, a columnist with The Week magazine, says his Twitter following is like “portable equity” that gave him an edge over more established writers earlier in his career. He’s now got nearly 33,000 followers.

One of Lewis’s more popular stories is titled “Why I hate Twitter.” It goes into why it became, for him, “a dark place” overrun by “angry cynics and partisan cranks.” He became demoralised, but he couldn’t pull himself away. “It’s also like a prison. You can’t check out,” he says.

Today, Lewis rarely interacts with his followers and hopes the service will come up with new ways to filter out the hate tweets. “Why should I be harassed if I look at my @ button?” he says.

But he remains amazed at how Twitter has helped him reach new readers, and after some 67,000 tweets, he isn’t giving it up.

OTHERS find that as more people join the service, the deluge of tweets can drown out individual voices. So says Bob Lefsetz, a music industry analyst who writes an email column titled the Lefsetz Letter.

Twitter, he wrote in July, is “toast”. “Over. Done. History.” His follower count isn’t rising as quickly as before, although it’s still a respectable 57,000-plus. And his tweets don’t see as much action as in the past, which he attributes to too many people tweeting “too much irrelevant information”. “In the old days, I’d get 20 retweets. Now I’ll get none,” Lefsetz says. “It makes me not want to play.”

Along with the potential for burnout, there’s also the risk that Twitter becomes uncool to the younger generation, especially when services such as Pinterest and Instagram are a tap away.

Devon Powers, an assistant professor of communications at Drexel University, says many of her students have moved on to Snapchat. But there can still be pressure to keep up with the other services.

“There’s all these new obligations to update and report and check in,” she says. It can make dropping offline feel like a relief."

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