Thoughts on #RIPTwitter

06630019

Twitter should stop throwing stuff at the wall to see if anything sticks, and instead focus on its true identity – and its core users.

I’ve been a member of Twitter (@alex_roddie) since 2009. I didn’t really get it until at least 2012, but my following slowly grew. As my career developed, so did my Twitter presence, and today it has become one of my most important ways of finding work and interacting with potential clients. But, unlike Facebook, Twitter doesn’t encourage me to be a brand – it encourages me to be human. The brand part comes naturally.

The Real-Time Canvas

Twitter allows people to be themselves and to connect with others regardless of whether or not they know each other in the ‘real world’. It can also be used rather like an RSS feed, or as a way of finding out what’s happening right now on almost any topic. I know of no other social network that offers such a level playing field to all users.

The beauty of Twitter is its austere simplicity. Until recent changes, which I’ll proceed to rant about shortly, the timeline was orderly and predictable, containing a chronological stream of information posted by the users you follow. No tweet may be longer than 140 characters, which is a constraint that encourages both brevity and intelligent debate.

I vastly prefer Twitter to Facebook, because it aims for simplicity rather than trying to be all things to all people. Facebook is confusing, unpredictable, and a ruined shadow of its former focus; Twitter is by no means perfect, but it was far closer to the powerful social utility Facebook should have been.

Gradually, Twitter is falling into the same pit that Facebook fell into some years ago. And as the #RIPTwitter hashtag shows, people are not happy.

What happened to Facebook

Part of the problem is that Twitter was always seen to be slightly geekier, slightly more difficult to use, than Facebook. It’s had its fair share of issues. And now the people who run the show seem to be frightened they aren’t growing fast enough.

I was an early adopter of Facebook. In fact, I’ve been a member for almost a decade – I was one of the first people at UEA Norwich to get an account, when the academic social network was first opened up to a few British universities. In 2006, Facebook was a near-perfect utility: a networked address book which allowed you to post public status updates (usually in the third person, in those days). There was a timeline, but it was presented in chronological order, like the Twitter timeline, and was easily navigable. Besides, nobody had more than a couple of dozen friends in those days. The laser-like focus on communicating with people appealed to me. In fact, it did nothing else; nobody even dreamed about marketing brands or publishing on the network in 2006.

A lot of things changed when Facebook opened up to non-academic members, and I remember hating the changes at the time. I can’t remember when the News Feed was invented, but that’s really when the rot set in. The News Feed took the pristine, ordered timeline and turned it into a selection of updates chosen by software. You could no longer be guaranteed to see a given person’s updates when you navigated the feed. In short, Facebook decided what information to show you, and as the social network grew things became worse. As of 2016, it’s almost impossible to predict who will actually read the messages you post on the network, and matters are even more confusing if you run a ‘page’ or a ‘group’.

Facebook is now heavily commercialised. It has robust tools for companies and advertisers, and while these tools are handy if you’re building a brand, it has come at the expense of the user experience. Adverts and ‘sponsored posts’ are everywhere. Logging in to Facebook is, these days, a bit like stepping into an untamed jungle where anything might jump out at you.

The network also experimented with a phase of building apps and games into its platform, but we won’t go there (I still have nightmares about it).

The point is that Facebook was desperate to grow, and its strategy was to introduce as many features as possible – often abandoning them in short order – while offering irresistible tools to advertisers and businesses, spoiling the core experience for actual users. Yet its addictive nature trumped all that for many people. Facebook is now ubiquitous, and remains a useful tool for keeping in touch with friends and family, but people complain about it so often that quitting Facebook has become something of a cliché. And the vast majority have no knowledge of the simple and pleasant network it was for that first year or two.

Feature creep and the desperate quest for growth

I see the same thing happening to Twitter.

Stories about Twitter struggling financially, or failing to attract new users, or revelations that vast numbers of accounts are inactive or bots, have been making the rounds for months now. I won’t link to any here; they’re all over the web. But at about the same time as these stories began cropping up, Twitter began experimenting with new features.

Notable additions include the ‘While you were Away’ section, and ‘Moments’. ‘While you were Away’ can be quite handy at the start of the day – it shows you tweets from accounts you interact with often, and you might miss them if they weren’t bumped up to the top of the timeline. But ‘Moments’ is downright confusing and I know of no actual users who like it or find it useful.

Then there’s the explosion of sponsored tweets. They crop up all over the place, and it’s often difficult to tell the difference between content that someone has paid for and content that an actual human user has retweeted.

For a long time there have been rumours that Twitter is experimenting with allowing users to post tweets longer than 140 characters. While such short bursts of text can feel constructing sometimes, it’s a creative constraint and I think it helps give Twitter its unique character. It prevents waffle and introduces focus. Well, it turns out the 140-character limit will indeed be removed.

Finally, there’s the recent revelation that Twitter is going to be introducing its own algorithmic news feed, similar to Facebook’s, that will select content to show you based on some mysterious inner workings. It appears that the traditional timeline won’t be entirely going away, but it’s still a step in the wrong direction – and a step away from the simple, real-time feed.

In short, the two features that actually define this social network – 140-character posts and the real-time feed – are being sacrificed in a desperate bid for popularity. They’re trying to make it more like Facebook and, in the process, spoiling Twitter’s unique points.

Another way forward?

This is not the ‘end of Twitter’, as some seem to believe, but I think the network needs to stop flailing around in a panic and focus on the user experience.

The problem is that Twitter needs to grow and earn money. I get that – it’s the main requirement of any business. But perhaps there are other business models to consider. Ads are obnoxious; users are accustomed to ignoring or blocking them, and if you construct a place designed for the needs of advertisers rather than users, satisfaction levels will decline. This is what has happened on Facebook.

The thing is, I don’t think Twitter will ever have the mass appeal that Facebook has achieved. Where Facebook is a Swiss Army Knife, Twitter is a scalpel – a much more specific, much less general-purpose tool, yet with an extraordinary degree of power. So instead of treating it like the next Facebook, why not start by focusing on the experience of the people who actually use Twitter every day?

I would not object to paying a small monthly fee (no more than, say, £1.99) in exchange for Twitter returning its focus to simplicity and real-time communication – and, most importantly, an end to feature creep. I don’t think Twitter should remain fossilised, but development of new features should be more considered and less panicked. They should focus on fixing the things that need to be fixed before they introduce new features that nobody wants.

Perhaps by taking payment at the point of use, a focus on quality of experience can be retained, rather than this desperate scramble for growth and revenue at all costs. I appreciate my idea won’t appeal to everyone, and the very idea of paying for a social network might seem strange. But nothing is free. Facebook takes your data and your privacy and turns those priceless things into commodities to sell to advertisers (as does Google, for that matter). I get a lot from my interactions on Twitter, so I would gladly pay a fee to help them move in a different direction.

Will Twitter still exist in ten or twenty years? Who knows, but these are dangerous times for my favourite social network, and I suspect the next year or two will seal its fate – or ensure its longevity.

%d bloggers like this: