"No, I'm not on Twitter. I don't even really know what it's for." If you enjoy Twitter as much as I do and have tried evangelizing it, odds are you've heard some variation of this, as I did from my mom. Twitter defies easy explanation, making it difficult for someone to get into, which is evidenced by Twitter's flatlining growth. Twitter themselves don't seem to have a good handle on what they do, considering how generic and malleable the definition is on their About Us page: Twitter helps you create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers. Like Facebook? Like WhatsApp? Like PowerPoint or email or just about anything?
How can we explain Twitter to mainstream users so that it sounds intriguing enough that more people will climb the learning curve? And will they care enough to reach the summit?
The standard definition of Twitter is that it's a social media site, but it's not, really. Social media is networking and how many people actually use Twitter for communicating with their social network? Okay, how many people who aren't already famous or who live in Silicon Valley? Assuming you have any non-tech-industry friends on Twitter, try DM'ing them and see how long it takes for a response. QED. There are other services better suited for social networking.
How about a messaging app? For some, yes. But again, you need to already have some measure of fame or work in the tech world to have a sufficient number of friends and family on Twitter for it to act as a functional group messaging app. Easier to just keep adding names to your SMS text, or post a global status update on Facebook. And of course there's no shortage of messaging apps.
Is it a news site? Certainly, major news can break on Twitter, but it's not a passive source of news, which is what the average consumer wants. Here's another test. Pretend you're a Twitter neophyte who wants to get the latest news on Ukraine. Open your favorite Twitter client, type "Ukraine" in the search box and tell me how long it will take this potential new user to become a tried-that-and-gave-up user. It's like telling someone to search on Google but that the useful link they want is somewhere on the first 25 pages.
This is the problem with Twitter as a news site: Too much noise, not enough signal. To see the signal, you have to already be following the account that is breaking the news. Otherwise, Twitter "breaks" a big story when the subjects of the story announce it on Twitter, or when a major news outlet picks it up. It's easier to just search "Ukraine" on the site or app of your favorite news organization.
Where Twitter excels is in letting users conveniently and constantly keep current on their interests, given enough time and enough existing insight into the topic to know who/what to follow. They're then rewarded with ongoing news, tidbits, insight and links, curated by the people at the core of their interests. And this leads us to the best way to describe Twitter.
Twitter gives you global, unfiltered, real-time access to anyone or anything you're interested in.
Your favorite author is Stephen King? Follow @StephenKing to get his thoughts on writing, politics and life. Love Formula1 but it's not covered well in your country? Follow @f1, @InsideFerrari or @LewisHamilton. Into celebrity gossip or tech news? Follow...just about everything on Twitter. No matter what your interest, Twitter gets you more intimate, more behind-the-scenes than any other medium. Even your mom can appreciate the value in that.
Twitter taps into the interest graph and the unsurpassed depth and breadth of curated content for all your interests is the most unique thing about the service, as well as the reason why its growth is limited. The fact is, very few people are so passionate about their interests that they will actively pursue pertinent content (essentially a corollary to the 90/9/1 principle). Getting Twitter to the point where you're following exactly the right people takes work. Once you've found the right accounts to follow, it's impossible to keep up unless being on Twitter is part of your job or you don't have a job. Most people just don't care enough to do it.
Your best friend may dream about classic cars, watching every hour of every Barrett-Jackson car auction, but he's not going to follow and keep up with @jayleno, @classiccars_com, @ClassicCarMotor, etc., let alone the accounts covering all his other interests.
Reading a Twitter feed is like riding a bullet train: You have a sense that interesting things are going by and every once in a while you catch a glimpse, but eventually you tire of the blur and nod off.
The reality is, Twitter will never be mainstream. And that's a shame.