Twitter just turned 8. It’s time for it to grow up—or be disrupted

March 23, 2014
March 23, 2014

Twitter is showing signs of its age. But no one seems to agree on what—if anything—should change about the service. About the only thing critics can agree on: As powerful as Twitter is, it’s still inaccessible to new users.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

Seven years ago, on the first anniversary of Twitter, I joined the service. Back then it was a virtual ghost town. At SXSW in 2007, one year after Twitter first launched, I had a front-row seat at a panel that included founder Ev Williams. It was so poorly attended that half the 60 or so seats in the room were empty. I can’t remember what Williams said, because he was so soft-spoken compared to the other panelists. Hardly anyone cared, anyway—at that point, no one had a clue what Twitter would become.

On Twitter itself, people made fun of each other for posting what they were having for lunch that day. The marketers, journalists and spambots had yet to descend. Within a couple of years, Twitter was popular enough that its infrastructure regularly buckled under the strain.

The beauty of Twitter is and has always been its simplicity. Its genius was its artificial constraints—140 characters, including any links. Back then the @ reply convention was informal, so too were hashtags, and neither appeared as live hyperlinks on the service. Threaded conversations happened informally. Image and media previews did not exist.

Gradually, Twitter institutionalized the workarounds users had come up with for making the service more usable—a process designers call paving the cowpaths. The service became more stable. And, quite unexpectedly, Twitter becomes the world’s best place to read breaking news, or follow celebrities and their shenanigans, or just goof off.

How it all started to go downhill

Along the way, the strengths of Twitter also became its weaknesses. Marketers like Guy Kawasaki gamed Twitter by robotically tweeting the same material over and over again. Amassing followers on the site became a contest, and a cottage industry grew up around charging people to accumulate more of them.

The standard counter-argument to “Twitter just isn’t what it used to be” is “Twitter is a tool.” Everyone on Twitter chooses whom to follow, and blocking unpleasant people is easy. Twitter purges—the sort in which you unfollow people, not the kind where you persecute them—are the new master cleanse.

But that ignores a number of ugly realities about the skewed incentives inherent in Twitter, all of which seem designed to increase “engagement,” but at the expense of our time and sanity. For example, while unfollowing someone on Facebook can be done within the news feed—it’s just a drop-down menu—doing the same on Twitter requires multiple clicks and page loads. Meanwhile, Twitter is constantly suggesting new people for you to follow.

Twitter also has no constraint on how much any one person can push at his or her followers. This is a strange oversight for a site that limits how much you can say. It’s like telling someone about a new diet on which they can eat all they want, as long as they take small bites. Twitter seems designed to inspire its users to push out the highest volume of material they can.

Twitter wants to be more accessible—but at what price?

As a public company, the pressure is on Twitter to grow. That means getting people to spend more time on the site, and getting more people to show up in the first place. This is no doubt what’s behind recent rumors that Twitter is eliminating some of its conventions, like @ replies and hashtags, because they’re “arcane.” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has admitted that Twitter can be confusing and “opaque” for new users.

But the question for Twitter is, can it solve its problems without wrecking what’s best about the site? What’s unique about Twitter are its speed, and the raw, unfiltered way it delivers information. Facebook, on the other hand, recently updated the algorithm it uses to decide what you see on Facebook to eliminate many of the posts (especially from brands) that would otherwise show up. Twitter’s “Discover” tab accomplishes nearly the same thing, highlighting material that may be older, but more relevant or interesting.

Twitter could easily make “Discover” its default interface. Sure, there would be a revolt among Twitter’s most veteran and/or heaviest users, but catering to them may no longer be compatible with Twitter’s need to reach the masses.

Twitter has a problem that Facebook doesn’t—it doesn’t really own your “social graph,” that is, the identities of all your contacts. That network keeps people on Facebook, even if only as a sort of default online identity. Twitter is about loose connections, and those who completely nuke their list of whom they follow on Twitter seem to suffer no ill effects.

This suggests that Twitter could be disrupted by a competing and better-designed service. But as I discovered when polling colleagues and my Twitter followers about what’s wrong with the service, there was hardly consensus about whether anything about Twitter should change at all, much less what it should be. Perhaps Facebook’s move toward featuring “high quality content” will push Twitter to the periphery. Or maybe a chat app will unveil a timeline that makes sharing breaking news somehow better. Whatever disrupts Twitter is anyone’s guess, but it’s my strong opinion that, given the tumultuous history of the social media business and the numerous problems inherent in Twitter’s user interface and incentive structure, it’s virtually guaranteed that Twitter’s reign over unfiltered sharing won’t last.

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