Monday, May 23, 2011

Twitter Gave Me My Break (And Other Things No One Believes)

by Brandon Mendelson 
Humorist, Author, and Social Media Critic

In 1998, Jerry Seinfeld did an HBO special titled “I’m Telling You For The Last Time." The idea behind the special was that Seinfeld would perform his sitcom material one last time and then retire it at the end of the show. For me, this article is like that special. I’m tired of answering questions about the number of people following me on Twitter (more than 800,000), where they came from (Twitter’s Suggested User List), and whether they’re worth anything (Spoiler: They’re not.) So, for the last time... In the Spring of 2008 I went on the Special Ed equivalent of The Fantastic Voyage and thought I was going to buy these buildings. The money was coming from MTV, who was going to sell the inventory I collected from different media outlets. A few months later, for reasons never explained, MTV backed out.

Before that happened, I approached Twitter about promoting the project’s account, which they were cool enough to do. When things went south, I deleted it. Yet another mistake in a long string of them, dating back to that time I wrote a girl snuff fiction. In the Fall that year, I returned to Twitter. I was really into social media and thought I could provide a good spin on things because I knew what worked and what didn’t. When it comes to online marketing, I’ve been at this since 1998. Almost as long as the Web has been commercially available.

Suck on that, Gary Vaynerchuck.

The renewed interest in giving out advice came after a professor at the University at Albany told me how horrible the odds are of getting a job with a Ph.D. in American History, which is what I was working on. I figured if I had no future doing something I enjoyed, I might as well do the thing I hate, but happen to be good at: Marketing. I also applied to a ton of jobs out of fear of unemployment. One of those jobs was at Twitter as an Administrative Secretary. Twitter sent me a rejection letter at the same time this small not-for-profit hired me. They brought me on to visit colleges to promote the early detection of breast cancer. So, I told the people at Twitter about what I was doing, and asked if they’d promote my account the way they did earlier in the year. I didn’t get a response back.

Soon, my wife and I were traveling across America with no money, a dying car, and absolutely no game plan other than “show up at colleges, record anti-breast cancer PSAs”. When we got to our second stop at Raleigh, North Carolina, I held a Twitterthon to help crowdfund our trip. I held the first Twitterthon in January of 2009 (despite what another marketer has since claimed), and it was relatively successful. This time? I made nothing. There was a guy casing our car when we pulled up at the Raleigh hotel (and again when we moved it). I should have asked him to shoot me. If he had, given how the rest of the tour went, he would have done me a favor. If I’m not mistaken, there may still be an open warrant out for my arrest in New Orleans. Later that night, I logged into my Twitter account and found I went from 3,000 followers to about 10,000. Turns out, Twitter decided to help me, and put me on their old Suggested User List. I was the only non-brand, non-media, non-celebrity to be placed there.

Between February 2009 and August 2009 when I was on the list, I reached a million followers. Then, just as I reached follower 9,999,999, I got an email from Twitter telling me they were dumping me. As soon as I came off the list, my followers started to drop by 300 every day. Something that still continues. This happens automatically regardless of what I do. I also noticed that everyone on the old Suggested User List was later incorporated into their new directory of “Who To Follow.” Everyone, that is, except for me. Twitter also verified everyone featured in a CNN article about “5 People On Twitter You’ve Never Heard Of.” Everyone in that article, except for me... again. Somewhere along the way I had pissed Twitter off.

My best guest as to how? After the college tour ended in March of 2009, I realized what a crock social media was and started to be myself online. Instead of talking about innocuous and boring crap, I started tweeting things like “I want to take this moment to remind you that the 'Midget' entry on Wikipedia has been locked for four years”, and “I can’t wait for Easter to end. I’m tired of picking Jesus’s turds up off my lawn.” It wasn’t long after I got into putting out funny tweets, which really picked up in July of 2009, that they dropped me.

Don’t get me wrong, Twitter did me a favor by putting me on the list, and I’m grateful for it. But that not being verified thing? It irks me just as much as not having my own Wikipedia page. (That really doesn’t irk me. Neither of these things do, but a good foofaraw makes for a good story, so let’s just pretend it does). Without being verified, I was now this random guy with all these followers who people never heard of. That brings most to one of two conclusions: either they’re missing out on this awesome party, or "this guy is a spammer." Guess which conclusion people went with? There’s nothing I can do about it though, and that’s fine. I plan to leave Twitter once I’ve established a big enough identity where it doesn’t matter what platform I use. You know, when I’m dead? Or, hopefully in the next year or so when I get back into doing stand-up comedy.

So, you might be thinking, “Why ditch an account with over 800,000 followers?” The most frequently asked question I get is, “How can I get Twitter to promote my account?” The second, but equally annoying one, is “Do you really have that many people following you?” Thankfully, these are both easy to answer. No, Twitter won’t promote your account. I was lucky and got in before they figured out how much money they can make selling Trending Topics and Promoted Accounts. Not that I would recommend you buy either. Why? That brings us to the second answer. Most Twitter accounts are inactive. They may tell you they have 2,000,000 registered users, but they don’t tell you how many are active users. There's a huge difference between the two. Conversely, Facebook Developer Jesse Stay told me Facebook would have a number of users in the billions if they counted their accounts the way Twitter does.

A lot of studies have come out detailing how most accounts are either inactive or not often checked. As it turns out, the majority of tweets are generating by less than a quarter of the actual active, not registered, users. Despite Fox and NBC being stupid and putting hashtags on their shows, only 12 percent of Americans actually have a Twitter account, and again, that just means they have one, not that they use it. So, do I have 800,000 people following me? On paper, yeah. But like social media, what works or appears to be true on paper often isn’t. Now, I’ve got a pretty loyal following, and it seems to be growing despite my best efforts, but it’s nowhere close to the number of people actually following me. Like Michael Ian Black, Bill Cosby, and other celebrities, media outlets, and brands placed on the old Suggested User List, the click-through rate for links is pretty low. Better than what you’d see with display advertising, but still around one percent. Likewise with retweets, at least in my case.

Are those followers worth anything? Only when I’m talking to people who don’t know any better, which is thankfully fewer and fewer. Being able to flash that number has given me opportunities I wouldn’t have got otherwise, and it definitely helped get me a book deal with St. Martin’s Press. My first book, Social Media Is Bullshit, will be out in stores in April 2012. Having that large number of followers is not without its problems though, because unless my book does well, I’m going to be the guy Twitter gave a hand to, and nothing else. And people always expect me to do awesome things for them because of those numbers.

I’ve told every single one of them that’s not the case, and when I can’t deliver for them, they get mad. So, I’ve pretty much stopped doing nice things on Twitter. I’ve also decided to not sweat any of this bullshit and just amuse myself first. If people like it, awesome. If not, I don’t care.

And I have to say, for those of you looking for a “social media policy” or a lesson from all this, that’s the one you should take to heart. Amuse yourself first.

You could be dead tomorrow. 

Follow Women in Crime Ink on Twitter here!


Call me confused????? said...

Is your article in the wrong place? I don't recognize your name or know anything about you and the first couple of paragraphs were confusing to me (just who is it asking you all these questions? why do they ask? why are you tired of answering? What buildings were you going to buy? What was the MTV show? what does that have to do with all the many questions?).

I skimmed the rest and it appears to be about your experiences with Twitter, but... What does any of this have to do with Women in Crime Ink?

Women in Crime Ink said...

It's a guest post, per WCI's announcement on Friday that Mendelson would be blogging. It's off-the-beaten path for WCI, thus the explanation. Thanks for the note.

Vincent Barr said...


Interesting stuff... but two quick questions:

1) How can I get Twitter to promote my account?

2) Do you really have that many people following you?

LB said...

Good, for a minute there I thought the site had been hacked.

Emily Read said...

Brandon Mendelson - hey I know you!!!! We met a few years back - you were promoting something, I was promoting a dating site... SO COOL! Small world!! Awesome story!!

Anonymous said...

The suggested user list is really an endorsement by Twitter and an off-color sense of humor and taking jabs at the hand that feeds you followers, is probably not the best idea if you want to keep that going.

This large following sounds like a burden to the author and that's a shame. There are many people that would be blessed to have be able to use an audience that large for something positive.

Anonymous said...

Eh. The guy sounds a little narcissistic to me.

Ern Malleyscrub said...

Dear MR Mendelson, Thank you for a fascinating account of the weird politics of the "new"* social media. The way twitter influences mainstream media is a curious dance of death, a bit of a worry about who is leading, stepped on toes, etc.
Good luck with biting the hand that might feed you or wack you in the face. Either can happen.
The attention span of humans is said to be decreasing, so I'd better shut up...
*New in the sense of the last 30 years of human history, Old in the sense that anything that's been around for a year nowadays is considered worthless, suspect and decrepit.