Some ramblings about Twitter
8 min read

Some ramblings about Twitter

Somanysmartpeople… have already written about Twitter and how to fix it. I’ve avoided throwing my hat in the ring because 1) What the hell do I know? And 2) I believe that nobody has thought more about the problem than Twitter employees. But, I found myself wanting to speak out amidst all of the recent buyout chatter, its Q3 earnings, and Jack’s one-year anniversary as CEO; so here we go.

Quick disclaimer: I believe the core product is great. This post mostly discusses concepts beyond features and more on structural issues that I perceive with the company.

1. Reduce size to move faster

Twitter was born out of the right constraints, yet ironically the company is too bloated and held back by internal politics and bureaucracy.

It’s a real problem because no one is thinking more deeply about Twitter than the product managers and engineers working on the ground every single day. There are plenty of capable and loyal individuals that just want to get shit done, but I get the sense that:

  1. Teams don’t feel empowered enough (or close enough to those in power) to implement big changes.
  2. Teams are too siloed and unable to collaborate effectively. From what I’ve heard, the “Home timeline” and the “Moments” teams are on different coasts (SF and NYC). They should be within earshot.

In my time at companies like Google and Square, I realized that all organizations form antibodies over time. They strive to maintain the status quo and prevent drastic change, generally out of fear of losing what made the company great in the first place. It can be very hard, as an intrepid employee who wishes to instigate meaningful change, to cut through these defenses, and failing to do so quickly leads to low morale.

My gut feeling is Twitter has built up an unhealthy amount of antibodies, formed over the course of its checkered past, that need to be excised from the organization. The leadership team must take a tough look at the entire staff through this lens, identify employees who have a tendency to “open more doors than they close,” and immediately part ways with them. Keep the doers, ditch the pontificators — that includes the leadership team being introspective with itself too.

As Sergey Brin once said, “scarcity breeds clarity.” And a scarcity of resources could be a key constraint for the company to focus on what matters.

2. Go private

Wall Street is a huge distraction to the company and its employees. If Twitter wants to grow its base, it needs to focus on the product. And how can it do that with Wall Street always breathing down its neck?

I am far from an expert on how this would work, what it would mean in practice fiscally, or what it would do for Twitter’s ability to hire talent; but I believe it would be a massive weight off of the blue bird’s shoulders. The goal here is to free them up to make the bets that they want to without having to answer to anyone else except themselves.

And for those who would still want to join Twitter will more likely be true believers in the mission. Those are the type of people Twitter needs.

3. Retire the Periscope brand, fold it into Twitter

Periscope, while a gorgeous app, is not a runaway hit brand like Vine is (was), even if that only lasted a hot minute. Instagram all but put an end to it with the inclusion of video and Facebook is poised to do the same with FB Live. Twitter needs to act fast and focus on its unique strengths (its network model).

Twitter should sunset the standalone Periscope consumer app (though it may stand as a branded tool for creators). The fact that Meerkat fizzled out isn’t because Periscope ate it’s lunch (well, it sort of is), it’s because there wasn’t a real social need. Otherwise it could have been successful as a number two (see Lyft). Twitter saved Periscope from the same demise by throwing its weight behind it and supporting it in the core product. I’m sorry, but nobody has time to stop what they’re doing and watch their friend stream their puppy playing at the beach over and over again.

Periscope, at its best, is when a small set of individuals have visible access to an major event (e.g., a burning building in your local neighborhood). But these events are few and far between, and requiring a separate app does the concept a disservice. What if you find yourself in front of a burning building, but haven’t download Periscope? People should think Twitter and Twitter alone.

Meanwhile, it’s great that Twitter made Periscope available directly in the timeline itself, but they should make “go live” an option in its app, as simple as clicking a button. It then does everything in its power to make that available, such as to your followers, those in your geographical location, etc.

For what it’s worth, Periscope has been on a downward trend this year (according to App Annie ranks), and I think it’s because the average person doesn’t find value in the app itself. It’s time to reign it in and make video great again.

Disclaimer: I say this with all of the love in my heart because I have dear friends that work on Periscope. They are amazing and deserve to have their work mean the most it can. I hope I’m wrong and whatever Twitter’s strategy is here, is the right one.

4. Redefine what “Live” means on Twitter

Bear with me because this is one is a bit more abstract.

According to Jack, Twitter is “live.” But the inherent problem with live content is that it’s synchronous, and we live in an ever-increasingly asynchronous world. Synchronous content works when it’s newsworthy, highly relevant to an individual, or extremely compelling. This is why networks like HBO and Netflix spend billions on premium content. It costs big $$$ to manufacture undivided attention of a massive audience for an extended period.

One of Twitter’s core strengths is that you can jump in and get “caught up” any time on the most recent happenings in the world. And that brings me to my hypothesis:

Twitter has the capability to redefine live, where live means being “in the moment,” even if its actually in the past.

So what does that even mean? Well, I missed yesterday’s Warrior’s game one, where they lost handily to the Spurs. Why can’t I relive that through many different vantage points directly in Twitter? Twitter has the data; it’s just not grouped and surfaced in that way.

Text is the most widely used and one of the oldest mediums on the planet. It’s not going anywhere any time soon, and its Twitter’s primary medium. Therefore, it has a unique opportunity to capture all of this commentary and discussion and serve it for years and years to come. Imagine if when you were reading a book about the Civil War or the Holocaust in history, you could go back and see all of the commentary, photos, videos (from both sides) that lead up to these events. You could completely immerse yourself and relive the experience. Twitter can (and should) make this available a hundred years from now for the 2016 Presidential Race, regardless of the outcome on November 8th.

In short, I believe the company should focus less on striking all of these live deals that are already available on primetime television (NFL, Presidential Debates, etc) that are not really expanding their base, and instead focus on a unique offering that only Twitter can provide: the ability to immerse myself in an event, regardless if its happening now or not.

5. Double down on Moments

Moments is effectively the “tabloid” version of Twitter, which is perfect for new and casual users. It’s a killer app built on top of the tweet firehose. However, it’s buried in the app and feels “bolted on.” Furthermore, it’s hardly evolved since its launch, short of the ability to create moments with the web version of the product, which is a fine first step — but you need to move faster because Moments could be Twitter’s version of Google Reader (which was awesome).

As an avid Twitter user, I love moments. I go there every day to get a birds-eye view (no pun) of what’s happening in the world right now. It spans the emotional gamut, with everything from comedy to tragedy. It also gives users another reason to participate in the global conversations, have their tweets featured and be “discovered.”

Sadly, many people don’t even know it exists. I showed and explained Moments to some friends that are self-proclaimed “Twitter lurkers,” but had no clue what Moments was. They were instantly hooked some drew a comparison to “Discover” in Snapchat or a visual RSS aggregator.

PS. Moments is a perfect location to surface live events as they’re happening. When the first NFL game was aired on Twitter, it was naturally the first place I went to find it, but didn’t.

6. Crack the social search problem

Twitter search has so much potential to be more than it is today. Everyone knows how to use search thanks to Google, who figured out how to magically search the entire open web over 15 years ago. Why shouldn’t Twitter aim to do the same for its own content? Based on my anecdotal experience, many people believe that Twitter search is only for hashtags. For example, why can’t I search “best TVs” on Twitter and immediately find relevant and compelling articles that were tweeted about TVs and the discussion around these items? In fact, why can’t I just search “TVs” and get halfway decent results? Try it yourself.

Search is arguably one of the most powerful features for a new user. They will come to Twitter for the first time, and if they don’t immediately see content relevant to them, will try and search for it. If that doesn’t produce at least a somewhat relevant experience, then you’ve lost them.

7. Automagically group tweets by topic

I often scroll through my feed and see the same topic being discussed by many different people. For example, a large amount of my feed right now is about the Microsoft’s Surface Studio announcement. But, it’s mixed with election tweets, random tweets from people I follow, and ads. That’s a bad experience. Allow me to “pivot” on any given tweet into a stream of tweets about that same topic, and I don’t mean hashtag search #SurfaceStudio or #Trump. Twitter should do more to “intelligently group” similar tweets in a way that allows me to experience what’s happening about that topic.

8. Other incremental core product enhancements

I believe the core product is fucking fine, but wanted to add a few incremental improvements that I think might make the overall experience better.

  • Add read receipts. Every tweet should tell you who has seen the tweet. This gives further insight into your tweets and how they resonate with your audience. There are many ways to implement this, for example, if you have a tweet on your screen for longer than a second, that counts as a “read.” People need to know who is reading their content, not just liking or clicking through it.
  • Improve conversation readability. It is way too hard to follow a conversation between two people, let alone three or more. Twitter has all of the data it needs to surface a UI that is far more capable of presenting a conversation than is done today. If Reddit can manage N-levels of depth in its conversations, Twitter can do it too.
  • Suggest hashtags on compose. While writing a post on a particular topic, it wouldn’t be too hard for Twitter to offer hashtags relevant to that topic that you can quickly “add” to your tweet. Medium does this with tags, and it works quite well for them. There’s nothing worse than posting a tweet about a topic and forgetting (or never knowing there was) a hashtag that could have been added to give your tweet more exposure.

And a few words on Safety

I want to recognize that this post does not address Twitter’s bullying/abuse issues. Twitter is an open and free network that anyone can join and the point is such that any person in the world can spread a thought whose impact is directly proportional to the merit and timeliness of the idea.

Twitter’s future as a global platform hinges on the ability for real people to have open and honest discourse without an underlying fear of unexpected retribution or retaliation. I don’t know how to solve that completely, and I’m not even sure the technology or enforceable policy exists, but Twitter should continue to work hard at these problems, even if it means making drastic policy changes along the way.

In conclusion

That was a short list of things that I feel are important to Twitter. And there’s no shortage of other ideas that could make the experience incrementally better (not stickers!), but I think the first step is to get out from under scrutiny and do what it does best: create the right constraints.

Twitter needs to reign itself in and focus on its core product, making it an approachable, yet infinitely deep experience. Jack and the leadership team should obsess over the details of the core product and embolden the teams to move as fast and as deliberately as possible.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter @davidbyttow

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