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.

User Control over the Granularity of Location Services

I use a lot of location services on my phone: when I tweet, more often than not, I include my location. I love geo-tagging my photos, so I generally include my location when using instagram, Hipstamatic, etc. & I regularly check in on Gowalla & Foursquare. So I’m not averse to sharing my location in general. I actually quite like it. That being said, I often wish I could be less specific about where I am. I don’t think it would be too hard to add a little slider, or some interface, to provide some scale.

By default, we send data for a point. But what if I could choose to send data at a variety of scales: point, neighborhood, city, region, province/state.

I suppose the particular use-case for this to avoid sending the exact location of my house – I do it, somewhat inadvertently, but I could imagine not ever wanting to do it. But still, letting people know that I am currently in South Vancouver (neighborhood), or Vancouver (city), or Lower Mainland (region), or BC (province/state), rather than my location within 100 metres should be perfectly acceptable data points – and gives me some control over the specificity of my data points.

In the above example, it is up to the app developer to provide scale/fudge-factor options. But we could abstract this farther, and make it a device-wide setting. My phone, via GPS, can always tell where I am. What if I could, device-wide, say “When in these areas, broadcast my location with much less specificity. That way, when I’m actually at home, it could automatically just send, say “Vancouver”, rather than my location. And by letting me choose where I want to reduce specificity, I still have the control – I set it up in my settings or preferences.

I suspect there’s a variety of implementation details that I haven’t really thought through, but I do think that this is an issue that if not the device (/OS) makers need to address, than app-developers do. Let me participate in location services, but at my security level – not what you’d ideally want. It’s a users-first approach to location, rather than data-first.

How to improve the Oscars

Like (based on the evidence of my Twitter feed) a lot of people, I watched some of the Oscars on Sunday night. It was a pretty horrible telecast, as is standard. The hosts were desperately unfunny, the “in memoriam” forgot Farah Fawcett, the dance number was cringe-worthy. And yet, somehow, listening to the winners give their thanks, whether pointed & cogent (Mo’Nique), touching (Jeff Bridges) or so sweet I assumed a team of Hollywood’s best writers had been hired to craft it (Sandra Bullock), it rises above all the crap to be touching. The Twitter back-channel chat, like all live “communal” events I’ve watched recently (with the exception of the super-bowl – apparently football fans are not witty), greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the show.

aside: Given how much I love the twitter back-channel chatter, I would love some way to show my twitter feed on my TV for certain events – as a sidebar, perhaps. Not sure if that should be a cable-provider interface or built into the TV, but I could see it being fun.

But, as always, the middle part of the show sags. And there’s a very good reason for it: None of the recipients of the mid-show awards are celebrities. Virtually none of the tv audience knows who these people are, and they, as a rule, don’t know how to deal with the limelight. So here’s my (by no means original) suggestion for the Academy for upcoming awards: Only televise the acting/directing/music awards. Don’t let screenwriters, editors, designers or even producers speak. These are the behind-the-scenes heroes of cinema, not whom the public associates with the films.

There’s already a technical Oscars. Why couldn’t either that show be expanded, or there be a third show, for the “technical production staff”. This show could be expanded to include all sorts of vitally important on-production technical work that isn’t currently awarded (my vote for first new award: Credits design). These technical production people could then have an awards show that is truly about them, where they can actually invite their friends and family, not just be the one guy in the crowd no one recognizes. By getting rid of all of the categories that don’t highlight the celebrities, the show itself could be shorter, tighter. There’d be room for special recognition for lifetime achievements, letting recipients speak, rather than just standing & waving as Roger Corman did on Sunday night. Much like they have a presenter talk briefly about the technical awards, someone could talk briefly about the production awards, highlighting the winners there.

Wanted: A twitter/comment plugin combo

When I post an entry (such as this one), I have a wordpress plugin (called Twitter Tools) that sends out a tweet (meta-linking update: like this) telling everyone that I’ve posted something. To manage comments, I use Disqus, which, amongst other systems, allows people to authenticate at twitter to then post a comment. Which is nice, and I like it.

But! Sometimes, seemingly more often than not, people will @-reply to me on twitter with a comment on my post. And I will often @-reply someone else about their post (that was announced on twitter). So here’s what I want:

  1. When I post an entry that sends a tweet, capture and store the ID of the tweet that I sent.
  2. Whenever someone @-replies or retweets that stored tweet, aggregate that to the comment-section of my blog, so that the entire related conversation is visible in one place.
  3. For bonus points, given that everything I post is also pushed as a post to Facebook & everything I tweet ends up as a status update on there too, it would be great to extract any responses to those as well, in the comments section of my site.

Does anyone know if such a thing exists?

The power of Twitter & the “Ellen Effect”

So, on Thursday, one of my clients, the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association (VOKRA) was linked to from the Ellen DeGeneres Show’s Blog, after being mentioned on the show. At the same time, a tweet was sent from the @TheEllenShow twitter account (As an aside, the reason for all of this is that Anna Torv, who is the star of the Vancouver-filmed show Fringe, fosters kittens for VOKRA, so she’s now much cooler in my books than she was before I knew this). Because of this one-time spike, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at VOKRA stats to see what sort of effect this had on their site, particularly as I had been worried a huge flood of traffic might down our servers (for the record, they passed with nary even a flinch. The charts below will show why).

The Ellen Bump
The Ellen Bump

As you can see, traffic generated from Ellen gave VOKRA a huge, but very brief, jump in traffic, from an average of 300 visitors a day to 3900 visitors. Which is nice to see. But, given Ellen’s reach (she’s the 4th-most influential woman in media & has over 3 million followers on twitter), I had been expecting a larger bump from it.

What’s particularly interesting, however, is how that traffic arrived at VOKRA:

How Ellen Viewers reached VOKRA
How Ellen Viewers reached VOKRA

Twitter blew the link on Ellen’s blog out of the water, driving 3 times more traffic to it than the links on the blog. Of the twitter traffic, all but 100 of those clicks came either from the individual tweet or the main page of Ellen’s account – the split is about 50/50 (of those 100 remaining visitors, all but 3 came from my own tweet – thanks, followers!). Being mentioned on the show was nearly as powerful as the tweet. Breaking down those Google searches, the most common was “kitten rescue vancouver ellen“, which suggests to me that comes from people watching the show and searching. A mere 839 visitors clicked through from the blog post itself. Although, perhaps not that surprising: It takes far more investment in the topic to do that, as likely, you’ll

  1. Watch the show & become interested in the topic
  2. THEN go to the Ellen show’s website and read more
  3. AND FINALLY, click through to the end point.

Which is yes, only one extra step, but in terms of buy-in, seems much, much more to me.

A final analysis. What VOKRA wants more than anything when you go to their site is one of 2 things:

  1. Apply to adopt a kitten
  2. Donate to them

What’s disappointing is that all this traffic had almost no effect on either of those 2 goals. There were a few more applications than usual over the past couple of days – a total of 14, vs, I believe, 8 for same period the previous week. And there was no effect on donations – no increase in either number of donations or amount over the previous week (given the increase in visitors, their donations-per-visitor ratio in fact just took a huge hit).

My conclusions to the above? VOKRA’s homepage is not as effective as it should be in communicating those 2 goals, and should be looked at (hopefully this analysis will mean that I get the chance to do). Analyzing what visitors did at the site, nearly every visitor clicked on the big cat banner picture – and then nothing else. The 2nd most popular click was to the blog post about being on Ellen – and then nothing else. In fact, the links to adopt & donate did not see a similar-sized jump in clicks, whereas the blog, gallery  & about us pages all did.

Twitter vs. Facebook

I’ve been thinking some of late about my relationships with Twitter & Facebook, and why, more or less as soon as Twitter came around, I stopped hanging out on Facebook (so, more or less the same post as about 10,000 others, but this one from my point of view).

I’ve been a joiner of all the social network upstarts. I had a MySpace account (I suppose I probably still do, although it is long unvisited), I had a friendster account, and, as soon I was able to, I had a facebook account. When I first joined facebook, I immediately “friended” all my real friends, which was great, and we had a new method, beyond IM of rapid communication. When apps were added, I got sucked into those and played games and whatnot. But the novelty wore off. And once I added everyone I knew, I stopped going as often. Sure, I could see what my friends were up to, but for the most part, their statuses didn’t change that often. And I wasn’t meeting anyone new or interesting on Facebook.

When I dove into politicking last summer, Facebook became indispensible. Every politician, aspiring politician, and most importantly, potential supporter and volunteer was on facebook. And here, facebook showed it’s true power: It is a closed feedback loop, which is exactly what is required for grassroots organizing. Once we’ve made a connection to each other, we can easily send information to and from each other. The information doesn’t really escape that loop, which is fine. On the downside, as all organizers know, no one considers anything on Facebook binding. Just because someone has said they’ll attend an event on Facebook does NOT mean they’ll show up. Just because they’ve joined your group does NOT mean they’ll participate.

Twitter, by contrast, is open-ended. When I tweet, the potential audience is not just my circle of 200 friends, the potential audience is anyone with an internet connection. Additionally, because I can read the conversation threads of the people whom I follow (caveat: with the recent changes to @replies, this is less possible now), I can quickly find new and interesting people. My list of people whom I follow on Twitter very quickly grew beyond my circle of friends and family – first to aquaintances, then to people whom I wished I knew, then people who inspired me, then, often, simply to people who seeming interesting, whether I knew them or not. And reading my language, you’ll note what I consider to be the key difference between Facebook and Twitter: on Facebook, you “friend” someone – it has to be reciprocal for it to be allowed. On Twitter, you follow someone, and there’s no need for them to follow you back. They can, but they don’t have to. And even if they don’t follow you, you can still read what they’re up to.

Interestingly, when I visit facebook now, the people who use it the most appear to be those who have connected their Twitter accounts to Facebook, so that their tweets update their facebook status. I suspect that the proliferation of non-web-based interfaces for Twitter have only helped to accelerate this – certainly, I almost never go to the Twitter site itself, just like I almost never go to the Facebook site. Websites, for all their goodness, are somewhat inconvenient compared to an app on my desktop because they’re not always on, like a desktop app can be.

I can be found at http://twitter.com/stv

Taxis on Twitter?

So I was thinking that Twitter seems like the perfect interface for talking to taxi companies – A quick search didn’t reveal any obvious links for how to twitter a taxi, but think about it – if, let’s say, Yellow Cabs had a twitter account, a DM or a reply with your location & name would be easy for you, and easy for the taxi co to follow and then dispatch a cab. The company, when dispatching the cab, could DM or @ reply to you as well, perhaps with the cab # – tie this into their dispatch interface, and this would happen automatically, saving time and possibly money for the company – customers twittering their requests wouldn’t be tying up phone lines for other people, and the only extra work for the dispatch would be to watch a twitter feed. If people were simply sending co-ordinates from GPS-enabled items, this entire process could be automated, so that cabs within a certain vicinity were simply automatically notified, bypassing a central dispatch all together.