Thinking about Twitter

Thinking about Twitter

I like Twitter a lot. I’ve been using it nearly a decade now. It’s an indispensable part of my professional and personal social life. Chances are, you’re reading this after seeing a link on Twitter. But Twitter is having some problems, some which I think are real, some less so. And because punditry is fun, here’s a few thoughts about Twitter, product opportunities and issues at hand.

Scale & ongoing growth

I’m going to be upfront about this: I don’t think continued growth is necessarily always a necessary, or even a good thing. Twitter is big. Not Facebook big, but, that’s probably ok. There’s lots of commentary about the lack of growth of users as being essentially a death-knell for Twitter. That’s possibly true – but it becomes true if you say it’s true. Having run a company, I knew early on that there was a sort of ideal size for what I was trying to do with the company. We had opportunity to grow much beyond that size, and resisted, because it changes the nature of the company.

Twitter’s like that. I’m not advocating that it regress in size, but, I will say that I find as it has grown, there was a tipping point, which for me was in mid 2013, when the signal-to-noise ratio became unwieldy and I needed to change how I used Twitter. So – what if there’s only 300 million users? That’s still the size of America’s population. And certainly some don’t believe in incessant growth of the national user base, or they’d be clamouring for more immigrants, right?

Part of Twitter’s problem, as it relates to users, is that in the modern free-app world, the only way to make money is advertising, and advertising demands ever-more eyeballs to make money – which in turn seems to drive down the value of each eyeball, so…huh.

But maybe Twitter could spend more time examining how to monetize it’s own users more. Also: I should preface this by stating I don’t actually know how Twitter makes money, besides selling data access and advertising. They may already do some of this. Looking back at the original WhatsApp model, they charged $1/year for users. What if Twitter did that? Or provided a free model, which works as is, but charged $1/month to power users? Or significantly more for Corporate or Verified users? Or, like Facebook, charged business users for reach within their own network (maybe they do this already?) when they post? There’s likely a tonne of money to be made just be re-examining access, stats, limits, etc on existing users. & I strongly suspect that Wall St would be much quieter about user-growth if per-user revenue and overall revenue would grow.

Of course, implementing all of this would certainly cost them users. Would celebrities still tweet if it cost them $$$ to reach all of their followers? Who knows. But looking at experiments like YouTube Red, and other paid-access social networking, there’s clearly money being left on the table.

Changing the product itself

There’s lots of complaints about ongoing Twitter changes:

  • Moments suck
  • I don’t like Hearts, I like Stars!
  • Quote? Retweet?
  • Longer Tweets?
  • Longer DMs?

Etc. Essentially every change to Twitter has brought much derision. But Twitter’s own UI, own feature set has been going more or less constant tweaks and refinement since it started. A major difference now is that since Twitter cut off it’s own developer network at the knees, these changes have been top-down, rather than bottom-up. So feel imposed, rather than organically grown. But even still, the Twitter community has managed to build cultural tools, with Tweetstorms and fun quoted-tweet rabbit-holes and other items. But, even when I don’t like the individual change, I love the feeling that Twitter is a growing, changing organism willing to explore fundamental changes to itself. While there’s a lot of worry about changing the “core” of Twitter – this ongoing change to me, is “core” Twitter. It’s been changing since the day I joined. But! I do, wholeheartedly, believe that Twitter needs to find a way to re-embrace it’s own community. It will be very hard, nigh impossible, to win back the trust of developers at this point. But, with a massive leadership change underway, this becomes a window to do so.

Abuse and dealing with it

I’m writing this as a white, cis male – so let it be know I don’t experience this much. But friends do, and I’m certainly well aware it’s out there. And that lots of much smarter people are working really hard to confront this. But, strangely, Twitter doesn’t seem to be doing much. So, here’s some of my own thoughts:

  • Where’s the “Akismet” for Twitter? A user-subscribable service to auto-filter inbound responses? Most of my miss-tweets are Scots angry at their local TV station – it’s pretty easy for machines to learn that this isn’t relevant to me or a recent tweet. S0 – quarantine them for me. In-app, give me a spot to review them if I want. But otherwise, just let me ignore them.
  • Network-rating? When someone I don’t know/follow joins in a conversation, one of the first things I do before I decide to respond is check: a) are they an “egg”? (I ignore all eggs – why this isn’t a feature in and of itself is beyond me) b) what’s their following/follower ratio? C) what’s their tweet count? D) do we have common networks of followers/followees? E)content of their recent tweets? Now, I don’t actually do all of the following every time. But you know what? A robot sure could. It could give me a score based on these (or other) criteria. And let me decide what sort of score would let their tweet come through or not.
  • Banning is, for me, a very problematic tool (free speech and all). But blocking should be easier and work better. And yes, should probably have better in-network tool too (ie, if this person is blocked by X% of people I follow, then…)
  • A large part of the problems I read about stem from piling-on across networks. I don’t have a great solution here – even if you don’t see the abuse, it could still be public and thus affect others, and even get back to yourself. Tools like Slack’s purported public-broadcast channels could be an interesting tool here: if your account is “public-broadcast” only, then no one can mention your account (or something) – people you follow could still DM, possibly even mention you still. That might reduce direct abuse, but not sub-tweet (and sundry off-line extensions that, TBH, I don’t even know where to begin).

Other Thoughts

  • As above: Letting users decide how interactive Twitter is for them is potentially useful: Twitter for large-follower users is already essentially broadcast – why not create an explicit channel/toolset for broadcast vs conversation?
  • As I tweeted last night: Liking/Favouriting is fine, but I’d really like two additional tools: a “mark” this tweet – which lets me use some sort of single-emoji to mark a tweet – the stats about which emoji I use for what could surface all sorts of interesting data, and a “react” to this tweet – again – a single/short emoji would work well here, like Slack reactions, which would go back to the tweeter, but perhaps not as a public tweet – perhaps in a method similar to poll-responses – show up in notifications. But maybe this, again, would be available as public data, so I could see when I look at a tweet, the various reactions to it – but not directly in the timeline.
  • I, personally, love the idea of long-tweets, or tweets with embedded stories. What if every Medium article I posted would auto-embed in my related tweet? Great! Feels like a win for everyone. I was unsold about embedded images/videos, but those are generally good. So why not longer text?
  • Media likes Twitter. Twitter likes Media. There’s probably a very interesting intersection here about the end of TV, channels-as-apps, Netflix or Twitch-style streaming…and Twitter. Periscope is definitely down this path. But how much money could there be if, say, I could pay monthly to ESPN to get access to a particular Twitter feed of ESPN programming, directly in my Twitter app. Or if I could make money by streaming through Twitter – particular tweets (or whole accounts) that people had to pay to see? (Beyond streaming, there’s simply an interesting Patreon-style model in here for supporting interesting writing, etc directly in Twitter
  • Seriously Twitter: let go of app-control. Let other people build various, use-case-specific or even general apps. Simply enforce feature-sets, so that as tools get added to Twitter, apps need to update too, if it applies to their use-case. Many common interactions now all grew out of app-developers experimenting with how to display Twitter.
  • I’ve always thought of Facebook as AOL, Twitter as IRC. Both are, in their own way, walled gardens, But one is a super-controlled walled, curated, corporate walled-garden, while the other is more of a slightly-off-kilter free-for-all that is still self-contained. Twitter almost feels like a utility, or a protocol, rather than an app to me – which probably explains why it has such a hard time dealing with Wall St – it is a fundamentally different tool than many of the other social network competitors (Who, increasingly, are just Facebook), and needs to find a way to revel in that.

So, Twitter. I love you, but you’re bringing me down. But we’re all in this together, so let’s figure this all out, so you can become a sustainable company and I can go on loving you.