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Whither Twitter?


Find Silvano D'Agostino's online prose.

Whither Twitter?

Silvano D'Agostino

I, like so many of us, love Twitter to death – I use it literally all throughout my waking hours, I have been a true complesionist for a few months, but even before, Twitter had transformed the way I work, and drastically changed the way I interact with the Internet. There was a time, when we all truly loved Twitter, the company, just as much as Twitter, the service. Today, while we still love the service, we fear (for) the company. So… whither Twitter[1]?

Controlling The Product Experience

We all seem to agree clients played a huge role in Twitter’s rise to popularity. Ben Thompson made a point on Exponent last week that he understood the strategic policy to dramatically limit third-party apps; and initially I agreed with him. The argument is perfectly reasonable, it’s almost the Apple way of thinking: We need to control the full product experience and leave nothing to chance, if we want to be successful. But I put some more thought into this and have now come to a different conclusion. Twitter is not Apple. And Twitter can’t and shouldn’t control our individual Twitter experiences. In fact, Twitter should view third-party developers much like Apple does. Essentially, they’re getting product innovation for free. Famously, some of the most basic feautres, ranging from replies to retweets, came from the userbase, and there are an infinite number of things I could see clients doing, were they more free in their working with the product (Nuzzel is a great example). John Siracusa pointed out on ATP somewhat recently that Twitter is much less of a product than it is a protocol, much like email is today. And I’d argue Twitter, the company, treating itself as too much of a product is only making it more difficult.

Problems, Pt. I

The problem has been the onboarding experience since day one. They should have been iterating the onboarding experience constantly for eight years, and they haven’t been; I don’t know what they’ve been doing.
~Ben Thompson

Indeed, there is an immense barrier to entry to Twitter; the people who don’t use or have tried and failed at using the service, do not understand the value it can potentially provide, but not because people are stupid or have no usecase for the platform – it’s just that nobody has ever explained it to them or helped them to get to the right place. Like Ben, I would bet $100 that for any of the people I know decently well I could, with some time on my hands, curate a timeline, such that they would use Twitter as their hub to the Internet. That should be their mission statement, not some corporate BS that doesn’t even fit in a 140-character tweet: “Be everybody’s starting point for their individual Internet experience.”

Solutions, Pt. I

Ben and James made some great suggestions by pointing out how they use Twitter: Having a refined timeline with users who constantly provide value and organizing lists that cover additional topics they might, at times, be interested in. They, further, proposed the idea of Twitter being more than one product, essentially offering different intensities of use: Algorithmically curated lists, self-made lists, following other user’s lists, and having the non-messed-with, “perfected” timeline. Any move towards this kind of model would clearly increase Twitter’s complexity – it’s no longer just your timeline with 140-character posts by the few people you follow. But at some point growth is going to require a diversification of the product line; I understand that nobody wants to work on a protocol[2], but there is no way one “Standard Twitter” will be able to cater to all our needs. This is exactly why third-party apps should be seen as a blessing for Twitter, the company, even more so than just for Twitter, the service: They allow for it to become whatever it needs to be for an infinite number of people.

We, and Twitter, cannot and should not expect that people are willing or able to invest that time it takes to get all of the value we adore. Therefore, entertaining the counterintuitive idea of indeed implementing algorithms to get Twitter close enough to what it needs to be to get the universal “you” started, might not be the worst idea. The true solution to the problem is in teaching and simplifying the process for people to curate their timelines such that they can get their personalized Twitter experience every day and/or whenever they want it. Client software could be of great help there, help that I am sure could even be monetized, but just this week Twitter sadly proved they don’t want it.

Problems & Solutions, Pt. II

Twitter’s second inevitable problem is and has been monetization. Yes, ads seem to be the obvious solution, especially since Twitter has an incredible opportunity in both presenting and curating ads to and for you, and I, too, believe that ads are not going away on the web at large any time soon. But I believe the economics of the Internet, especially the smiling curve, as presented in this adapted form by Ben Thompson, are super interesting:

Bens Simling Curve

I think this applies to not just publishers of writing, but to any product on the web (and possibly also to more and more physical goods in the future): There will be focused, independent or small company creators who can sustain their businesses because of their relatively tiny, but willing to pay base of customers on the one hand, and massive companies like Facebook, Google, or Buzzfeed, which are sustainable through ads alone (literally making it up in value). The middle ground is going to be the most dangerous to be in – Twitter is in a weird place and doesn’t appear to know where to go. There would probably be enough users willing to pay for Twitter to sustain their business with this limited number of users; and there are probably enough users to sustain the free Twitter based on ads.

My Generalized Smiling Curve

Whither Twitter?

I am not sure where this leaves us, to be honest. I don’t think Twitter is going away any time soon, no matter which path they choose (although it’s obvious they’re going for mass, the way there seems unclear to everybody involved). The other day I had a super interesting conversation with a journalist who believed Twitter had no appeal to “normal people”, but was mainly for anyone working or interested in some sort of public domain. As the second wave of (fully justified) Ferguson tweet storms began, I couldn’t help but also notice the inherent danger that comes alongside heavy customization: Lack of exposure. Worth a post of its own, let’s leave it at this: Those who don’t curate for opposing opinions will never even be aware of them, and that’s a dangerous society I don’t want to live in[3].

For a final prediction, I agree with Marco: Twitter is silently going to pull us all away from third-party clients, simply by not allowing them access to new features. In the short-run, this might even raise advertising income, make investors happy, and generate some positive headlines. And who knows, maybe they can come up with better ads, more interesting partnerships, or fancy algorithms to sustain the service without outraging us. Then we might actually stay indefinitely. Otherwise, Twitter may come to have its MySpace-moment – only I’m not sure the transition to “Facebook” will be as pleasant.

  1. TL;DR: Twitter doesn’t like third-party apps anymore, and depending on how badly they screw theirs up, I fear the service is going to go downhill. Monetization and the experience for newbies are two areas of main concern – and Twitter doesn’t seem to know where it’s going. Sad!  ↩

  2. Not least of all because there is no money to be made, a problem I will dive into in a second…  ↩

  3. Now that’s not to say it couldn’t be done already, even prior to Twitter. The degree of ease is about to massively increase, however, and I fear the effects that might have, especially for a nation like America where political black-and-whiteness is so prevelant.  ↩