Will ‘the best athletes make the worst coaches’ apply to social media (and twitter in particular)?

There is a long-held belief in professional sports that the best athletes often make the worst coaches. The reason for this is simple – elite performers often have a natural ability to perform that there lesser counterparts do not possess, and in turn they are unable to really understand how to coach and develop their less talented peers. In turn, it is often the mediocre players (those that had to get every last ounce of output from their limited ability in order to forge a career), or even those who are never able to go pro, that are more suited for coaching – because they really understand what the majority of players need in order to succeed, and what makes them click.

What got me thinking about this is that a lot of people are wondering what 2009 holds for social media, and Twitter in particular. Over the last year or so Twitter has exploded in popularity, and had over 3 million active accounts in late 2008. Within this group are numerous social media experts that have emerged as leaders, and they are remarkable on many levels. It is not uncommon for them to have thousands of followers, follow thousands of others, be active every few minutes from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed, and seamless integrate it with their other social media activities throughout the day. For those looking in from the outside, it can truly be a dizzying amount of activity.

Looking out over the next year, many people are trying to guess how popular Twitter will become – for example, Sean Moffitt has put the over/under for users at the end of 2009 at 25 million. If usage gets into this ballpark, I think it’s fair to say the platform is moving beyond the mavens and the connectors into the mainstream. But my question is whether how these people use the platform will be different, and how applicable the lessons from the leading twitter users will be.

I personally think the how will be quite different, and it sort of connects back to the athlete analogy. As Twitter usage expands, more and more of the people engaging with it won’t see participating in “constant conversations” throughout the day as natural… or maybe even useful. And they’d certainly be overwhelmed with the prospect of trying to track thousands of different streams of information. There are two groups that I’m particularly interested in on this front:

1. “Introvert” thinkers. As Tracey commented on my related August 8th post (Social Media for the anti-social), Twitter is particularly attractive to those that like to “think out loud.” Many other people aren’t like that – they like to close themselves off from the world to do their thinking, and then re-connect when they believe they have something to say, and tend to generally move a little slower than the mavens of the twitter world. I think I fall mostly in this category, and have found it leads me (I believe) to use Twitter a little differently than many of the power users. I find the most value from search.twitter.com, where I seek out links to blog posts and other more detailed analysis of issues I am interested in. For the most part, I find the “conversational” tweets from even the people I follow, many of whom I find to be quite brilliant, relatively useless for how I work. Though I am changing a bit on this front, I can’t ever see a day where I’m 1/10th as active as the most engaged Twitter users.

2. Non-Web Workers. I don’t really like this name for the group, but it represents the mass of people who aren’t tethered to a computer (or other internet enabled device) all day. Some of these people are knowledge workers of some sort, and many others are not – and there connection to the WWW may be limited to a couple of times a day, and their “free time” after work. I would speculate that some of my thoughts about “introverted thinkers” might go a step further here – they might not be looking for conversations at all. What they might be looking for, however, are valuable links to content, information, and services relevant to them – making Twitter a little more of a “broadcast” platform than many people currently consider it to be. There are already hints of this – for example, Al Gore has 23,158 followers, and follows exactly one other Twitter account (Current TV, which he is a part of).

Now again much if this is just speculation, but the underlying belief is that the next stage of growth for Twitter will involve a mass of people that might use the service entirely different than their predecessors, many of whom (from my experience) focus on it’s value as a conversational medium. Those that are currently most active and in tune with the site are extremely well-positioned to monitor any evolving trends here, and offer valuable advice for individuals and companies seeking to get the most out of the platform. However, I suspect that some of these leaders may fall into the trap of believing everyone should use the platform like they do – and in the process show how sometimes the most proficient social media users (think: best athletes) can make the worst instructors (think: coaches).

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2 responses to “Will ‘the best athletes make the worst coaches’ apply to social media (and twitter in particular)?

  1. Hey! Bienvenue to personal branding on the social web! Nice to see your corner lot here in the neighborhood.

    On Twitter, some of the most prolific Twitter folk use mobile platforms for Twitter, not the web. @pistachio, @scobleizer for instance. And, Al Gore can get away with broadcast-only tweets, but it’s generally frowned upon. About the same effectiveness as “friending Coke” on Facebook for everyone else who tries.

    I have “coached” nGenera clients on Twitter, and you’re probably right– I fell short on my desire to demonstrate the value of Twitter in the short time allotted. In my own defense, I’d have to say there is much more to Twitter than the mechanics on how or when or with what frequency to do it. It’s an acquired taste, an experiential addiction. The community value intensifies with engagement. The hard part is to encourage engagement without “proving” the instantaneous benefits.

    On behalf of Twitterzealots everywhere, I’m not sure anyone I know is demanding “everyone should use the platform like I do.” As far as spotting the trends and interpreting the results of twitter’s usefulness, I agree with you that it will be the “mediocre players” that will provide the best testimonials/advice for coaching/encouraging their peers and friends to try it, but ultimately, all Twitterers find their own comfort level/style and personal benefits from the platform.

    That being said, I’m very happy to give it a go and help coach any of my “less talented” peers. 🙂 !! Maybe together we can get the formula right for the masses who will ultimately determine whether Twitter is fad or fundamental.

  2. Thanks for the comment Susan! To be fully transparent, you are one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter! 🙂

    I find the Al Gore thing very interesting – as you note, what he is doing is generally “frowned upon” – but obviously the 20,000 + followers of Al aren’t frowning too much. I’m very interested to see whether, as Twitter usage increases to a broader audience, this type of “broadcast” model becomes more accepted.

    I’m finding some interesting tie ins to my YouTube research – a platform that was designed on a many-to-many principle (Broadcast yourself!), but is morphing more into a few-to-the-many every day it seems. While I don’t think Twitter will go to the same extreme (large chasm between creating video content and 140 character messages), where it settles… I guess only time will tell.

    It will also be interesting to see how many people find value from becoming “addicted”… I know that I was initially resistant, but am finding more and more value from the platform. But I still have trouble finding the balance between feeding and benefiting from the addiction, and my other (more isolated) approach to work I find myself required to take.

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