twitter communities / the living dead

Not a month passes by or some blogger launches a moan about how the initiative to comment on blog articles is slowly declining. This is definitely not a new phenomenon, 3 years ago I wrote my own whine to preserve the noble art of commenting, but even I was just a link in a long chain of bloggers complaining. One of the most cited arguments is that the discussion has shifted over to Twitter. A statement that can be easily verified, so why not try to do that with some numbers?

the setup

A few weeks ago the people of Smashing Magazine launched a pretty interesting question through their Twitter account. They asked themselves (and all their followers) how the skills of a good front-end developer could(/should) best be tested. While the answer to this question seems mostly relevant to team leaders and HR people, the core of the question is something that should speak to every professional front-end developer out there: "What makes a front-end developer a good professional".

It prompted me to write an article on hiring front-end developers, but at the same time I was pretty interested to read what others would consider important qualifications for becoming a good front-end developer. So for the first time in my life I clicked on a Twitter hash tag (just for reference, I'm using Tweet Deck to manage everything Twitter related), quite anxious to dive into this hidden layer of Twitter's social communication platform.

For those of you who don't know the Smashing Magazine Twitter, it's pretty much set up like a direct feed of interesting links on web development. Because of that it garnered a pretty extensive base of followers. Current numbers are flirting with the 400.000 mark, so when they present a question on Twitter it reaches 400.000 people without any form of further social intervention. That's a lot of possible replies, right?

the numbers

I did my reply count a couple of days later, by then not many new replies where added to the list. Since it was the first time I was trying out filtering on hash tags, I really had no idea what the multitude of replies would be, but even then I couldn't have imagined how poor the actual results looked. From a potential audience of roughly 400.000 people, came ... 50 replies.

That's a 0.00125% reply rate, meaning only 1 in 8000 people took the time to write a (133 characters maximum) reply. Now of course not all followers are probably active accounts and Smashing Magazine has a pretty strong focus on design, which probably eliminates a percentage of people who aren't all that interested in front-end, but no matter how you look at it, 1 in 8000 is a pretty sad statistic.

On the upside, speaking in absolute numbers, 50 reactions is still a pretty solid result. But let's not get too excited yet. 20 entries in that list of 50 are mere retweets. I don't know why a program like Tweet Deck doesn't filter these as retweets merely functions as information noise when scrolling through the list of replies, but a good 40% of what you're getting is just other people asking the same question again. An important part of the social Twitter structure no doubt, but not at all interesting to someone like me, who's looking for actual answers. So without those 20 retweets, we still have 30 actual replies left.

on comedy, feminism and other nonsense

This being the web and all, everyone can say and post whatever he wants. There isn't much in the way of moderation possible on Twitter either (at least, as far as I know), so those 30 replies are not necessarily all on-topic. Of course it's the same with comments, though those are a lot easier to moderate. So what did I find among these 30 replies?

Well, we all know the web is full of comedians, and so I found some nonsense on Star Wars and IE6 not worth reading, totaling 4 tweets. Apparently there are also a few active feminists watching the Smashing Magazine Twitter, as there appeared to be some consternation on the usage of the word "he", which obviously needed a swift intervention. Together with retweeting and some sucking up to these remarks, it totaled 5 tweets. One random tweet just listed the hash tag, so that one could be scrapped from our list too. This leaves us with 20 factual replies to the posed question.

It's a tad risky to discuss the quality of the contents of these replies as everyone has his own ideas on front-end development, but I for one don't believe that implementing front-end code in any kind of CMS is part of the basic front-end skill set. If you're looking for people who can do that, you're probably not looking for hardcore front-ender developers but a cross-over profile who's versed in both back-end and front-end development. So to be fair, let's just keep it at 20 replies in total (one of which was my own though).

the bottom line

The stone-cold bottom line: 1 in 20.000 people actually found the time to write an actual reply to the question. That's 20x133 characters, mostly comprised of straight keywords lacking any form of decent argumentation. Only 1 tweet contained a link to a blog post that actually went a bit deeper than listing things like "writing clean code" and "make him do a practical test without internet connection".

Maybe the Smashing Magazine Twitter is a bad representation of the web development community living on Twitter, but considering all the limitations the Twitter format presents to holding a decent discussion (the 140 character limit, hardly enough to fit in a full sentence) and the poor quality output of such a huge community, I'm hardly convinced that Twitter is the right place for us to talk about our work.

I do believe it's the perfect place to share links (though not in any shortened form) and to post funny/thoughtful oneliners, but beyond that it remains a rather poor communication platform. If you take the above figures into consideration, I believe it's hard to contest that conclusion. If I'm missing something though, don't tweet it to me, just list it in the comment section.