I fear that Twitter’s indecisiveness is going to be its undoing.
I do think, however, that what can save Twitter isn’t what most other people think could.
I love Twitter
I’ve loved it since 2009 when I first tweeted. Sure, there were ups and downs and times — varying in length — that I didn’t use (or even didn’t read) Twitter. But I always found my way back.
I don’t like Facebook, and while I enjoy Snapchat and Instagram to varying degrees (and with a varying intensity) my love for Twitter stays strong.
But I’m also realistic. I have a great interest in futurism, particularly as it’s related to communication (which is my job, so no real surprises there) and I’ve been feeling — for a fairly long time now — that where Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram has found their respective positions, Twitter still struggles with theirs.
My explanation for that is that Twitter is unique. It’s unique in its potential to change the framework of communication, and the way its users can be an instrument of that change themselves.
Before I dive into what I think Twitter was, is, and is capable of becoming, I have three practical suggestions for them.
1. A tweet’s a tweet
The base concept of following someone on Twitter is that we’re interested in what they have to say. And that doesn’t just mean what they have to say in general, but also what they have to say to others.
Separating tweets from replies is a foundational mistake.
While we can get to those replies, it takes an unnecessary effort. I get the reasoning behind the method, but there are better ways to lessen the pressure on our timelines. From the top of my head, I’d either display the content they’re replying to prominently at the beginning of a reply action; or include the original tweet in some way in the timeline itself.
UX design isn’t my area. But by not making replies instantly available, Twitter effectively takes away one of the largest reasons why we follow others.
It also makes for bad judgements. I’ll talk about other ways to prevent snap judging of users in the third point, but it’s related to this current one: someone who is on Twitter to connect with others (something which, I think, we can all agree is the ultimate point of social media) will be regarded less because visiting their profile their timeline may seem empty. Merging the “tweets” and “tweets and replies” tabs together shows that a tweet’s a tweet no matter what.
What I like about Snapchat is that a snap is a snap no matter what. Once the snap — the content — is crafted, they’ll let the user choose the audience for it. Twitter should adopt this approach, and not open with the decision between quote, reply, or post. There are many tweets I posted as replies I now would think serve better as quotes. Many quotes that’d make more sense as replies.
Again, I’ll talk about this later, but putting the decision before knowing the content that’s about to be created makes for many regrets and annoyances.
2. Give Twitter an ‘Aura’
We can make a good argument for looking to what games can teach services that have to ease new users into their ways.
A ‘New User Experience’ is crucial, especially when the foundational simplicity is coupled with a foundation that’s messy and complicated.
“Messy” and “complicated” aren’t negatives in this case: by Twitter staying true to its simplicity at the core, they have to let users use that simplicity in their own ways. The moment Twitter decides to introduce additional layers of rules, it just makes a bad decision in taking away fluidity.
One of my favorite games, even though I don’t play it any more, is EVE Online — a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) of the sandbox variety. I’m sure there are any number of games that can claim a similar reputation, but EVE is both a sandbox — similar to Twitter — and (in)famous for its steep learning curve. What I’ve noticed over the years playing EVE is how their introductory experience changed. They call their guide Aura, who — within the context of the game — is an AI assistant responsible to educate new players about the base functions and processes of the game.
Similarly to EVE, Twitter is information overload, where virtually nothing restricts a user’s movement, play style, aspirations, or interpretation of the space (pun intended) around them.
Aura doesn’t take away from the sandbox nature of EVE. It doesn’t “baby” new players, it simply explains the concepts of gameplay. Twitter could use an Aura.
Twitter’s ‘Aura’ could walk through new users — or old ones, should they think it necessary — the foundational aspects of using the platform. Once this “tutorial” is completed, users can dive into Twitter in earnest — analogous to exploring nullsec in EVE.
Many users are turned off by Twitter because they don’t have a proper new user experience. They have to learn through failing, and many will experience a distaste for that. There’s value in easing users into this new experience. It also separates them from the volatility of Twitter users who have no patience for newcomers. (Or, being bullies and trolls, just simply make it a sport to pick on them.)
3. Make stats private
Is there any point in knowing how many followers the other person has? Or how many people they follow?
Making stats completely private can ensure that users are judged on their content, not on numbers that doesn’t mean anything outside their inner context.
I have, as of the moment of writing this, 871 followers. That’s an impossibly big number to someone new, and an inconsequentially low number to a brand or celebrity. And, most of all, it means nothing to anyone but me. I know that I can be proud of that number.
Follower count is a complete vanity metric. Yet, we make snap judgements and valuations of people because they float on top of our profiles. Follower/following counts only matter to the user, and they’re nobody else’s business.
Twitter isn’t Facebook. (Or Snapchat. Or Instagram.) Stop acting like it is.
280 characters means nothing. If I wanted to write longer, I’d (and I am) write a blog or post on Facebook. If I wanted to browse media, I’d go to Instagram or Snapchat. I’m on Twitter for a different reason.
Whether 140 characters is enough is debatable. My opinion is that it’s enough. Is it hard? Sure it is. You have to be creative, and you have to pause. You can’t just vomit words out in the digital space.
Take that away, and you’re taking away a good portion of the quality filter inherent in the restriction.
But more importantly Twitter, by trying to act like Facebook or a blog or whatever that’s doing good at the moment, is weakening its own potential.
What Facebook (and Snapchat, and Instagram) got right is the idea of discussion and community. Twitter should, absolutely should embrace those as well, but not the implementation of others. It only works if it’s in its own context.
Twitter is for conversation. And it seems Twitter itself wants to be about conversations, just can’t make the decision to truly become that.
Why this matters a lot more than you’d think
Twitter is open. Facebook, however it wants to be omnipresent with an appearance of openness is private. (That stance is a whole other discussion in itself, and a really interesting one. Just saying.) Snapchat embraced its exclusivity. (Instagram, too, albeit to a much lesser extent.)
Twitter’s differentiator is its openness. And that quality can not only turn their profitability around, but also can be the very instrument that changes our framework for governing our communications paradigm as a whole.
I’ve mused a few times, in different places, about how I think we’re at a breaking point with regards to the internet as a concept. My position hasn’t changed in years, but it did get more refined. And especially with the recent waves the US Department of Justice is making in their investigation into the Russian interference into the 2016 US Presidential election, I think it’s more relevant today than it ever was.
That Facebook came forward with their assistance for the investigators raises interesting question. And the latest news of Senator Mark Warner lashing out at Twitter for not doing the same solidified my thoughts on this topic.
Twitter can be the first platform to break from the old paradigm of legislating communications.
I don’t want to go into the debate on whether the Russians influenced another country’s democratic processes, and what implications that has. (I will do it, at a later time, and spoiler alert: I don’t think it as a necessarily bad thing. In fact, it just shows that we’re completely, totally, and utterly ill-equipped for the internet. Which is my point here, so let’s get back to that.) What I do want to talk about is that Twitter’s future can be found in not accepting responsibility the way Facebook has.
Facebook knows, no matter they communicate to the outside, that it’s a closed platform. They have a requirement, put forth in their terms of service, for users to use their real names and real personalities. Spreading fake news on Facebook comes with the understanding that the person behind the post is a real one.
Twitter has no such requirement. There’s no understanding that the user is a real person. There’s no difference between a business’ profile, a private user’s profile, or someone’s profile who wishes to take on a different persona from their own.
Twitter, in one sentence, is the example of the freedom of choice the internet inherently has. (Or should have.)
Which means that the legislative framework is inadequate to govern its operation, the same way it’s utterly useless to govern the internet as a whole. Facebook came forth as an American company, regardless that its users aren’t necessarily American citizens. Twitter is even more so a global platform meaning that US law shouldn’t have jurisdiction over it.
True, Twitter is an American company. But just the same way I can’t understand how the US can claim to speak for humanity as a whole through the Golden Record on the Voyager spacecrafts, I can’t understand how the US legislative framework (as much of a mess as it is) can claim jurisdiction over the internet as a whole.
It’s time we accept that the internet is global. It makes no sense to subject it to national laws — there’s no concept of a “national internet”. I’d argue that the concept of nations in general is outdated and should be replaced, but let’s not go that far just yet.
That’s the paradigm change in communications that we need to figure out, sooner rather than later. We need to come up with a system where global companies are governed by global laws. Not voluntary treaties. A fairly suitable analogy would be of the Avengers: how can any nation claim jurisdiction over a group (read: communication platform) whose members (read: services) are so powerful they defy any concept of nationality? Look what happens in the comics or in the movies: there’s a treaty that brings more pain (Marvel’s Civil War) than benefit.
The United Nations could be a place to start, if for no other reason than because it’s already there. But in that case, the UN needs to be armed with the power to enforce its jurisdiction and prevent others from claiming ownership over things that transcend their understanding and grasp.
I have no illusions how popular this idea is. I also don’t claim to have solved the crisis we found ourselves in. But I think it’s worth repeating over and over and over again that which is evident at every turn there’s a discussion about free speech, net neutrality, or such: the people making the decisions are woefully misunderstanding the ramifications in their narrow-minded pursuit of small-mindedly set (however noble or important within their own context) goals, and the legislative and social frameworks on which they’re basing — or claiming to be basing — said decisions are, by themselves, are woefully inadequate to be forced into such a position.
Over time we’ll find ourselves in situations similar to this again and again, and more and more frequently.
We’re already too late to this discussion, and yet we’re still debating whether or not we should have it in the first place.
Twitter can be the very first who can lead the way into a new way of thinking about these topics. It can be the experiment that can lead us into the next stage of governing ourselves. (Or our communications in the very least, which is increasingly the center point of our societies.)
And it can be what saves Twitter from perishing, as it seems Twitter just can’t fit into the old paradigm any more. Where Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram (along with a lot of other platforms) seem comfortable in the old paradigm, Twitter just keeps putting up a fight at every turn. Google is in a similar position, and soon enough — I suspect — so will every single global platform or brand. They simply outgrew the concepts of “national”. (Facebook, too, but they don’t seem to be in a hurry to admit that.)
And there can be profit and social good and advancement on the other side. Can Twitter do it? It can — whether they will or not remains to be seen. (And whether or not lawmakers would let them, too. I’m not overly optimistic on that account.)
Cover image credit: Twitter. Duh.