Twitter Isn’t Dying*
*but it’s not living its best life either
In the movie, “Mr. Mom” Michael Keaton’s first task as a stay at home dad is to take his children to school, something so simple that he scoffs when given instructions. Ignoring honking horns and backseat admonition that he’s “doing it wrong,” he proceeds with absolute confidence in the “Jack Butler Method,” despite its unproven tactics and uninformed practitioner. Yet it’s not until his station wagon is positioned opposite every car in the drop-off circle that Jack finally rolls down his window and listens, as Annette, the traffic parent who has been on the ground in wind, snow, sleet, and hail sets him straight.
“Hi Jack,” she says. “You’re doing it wrong.”
By any measurable standards, I’m a nobody. But since February of 2009 I’ve sent thousands of tweets and fallen in love with Twitter in a way that’s as close to an addiction as I’ve ever had. In response to the community I found there, I created the #IRLProject, a long form diary about traveling “in real life” to meet 24 people I follow on Twitter.
And though your task is daunting, now that you’re official I gotta say, “@Jack you’re doing it wrong.”
During my first IRL meeting I learned that there are physics theorists who posit that the Internet is a parallel universe and social media the bridge between our two worlds. Twitter isn’t the only one, of course. Facebook would be the Golden Gate, famous and instantly recognizable; Instagram the romantic and photogenic Brooklyn; and Snapchat the trafficked (and misunderstood by outsiders) GWB. But Twitter is the Bay Bridge — present in a disaster and daily shepherding travelers from East bay reality to a sparkling city and back again.
Your appearance last August at the protests in Ferguson was a global demonstration of Twitter at its loftiest and most impactful, collapsing distance and socio-economic strata in the parking lot of a burned out Quik Trip. You were a supporter, an ally, boots on the ground, and a face in the crowd — at once, a founder of Twitter and a guy compelled by what he’d read there — the perfect illustration of your medium’s power to connect people with information and how to act on it.
I too went to Ferguson because of what I read on Twitter, driving from Kansas City with my photographer daughter, in spite of the fact that our budget demanded a marginally scary hotel and a one-day turnaround. But in addition to giving me an entirely new perspective on government sanctioned oppression, that trip gave me what I needed to go through with the IRLProject.
We spent the day asking people to share their stories, trading handles, talking one on one and listening at press conferences to compare what we read in the news to what was happening on the ground. We saw the passion and commitment of young leaders who were both feeding protesters and demanding answers from politicians, and we left convinced of the power of connection to foster change.
The IRLProject launched on October 26, 2014. I researched pertinent Twitter employees in an effort to gain an audience, and tweeted at them, occasionally tagging the company, as did supporters and participants who thought you might be interested. Given the fact that none of us ever got a response, I’m guessing you weren’t.
An unplanned hiatus took me to the Bay area to be near family and as I looked for work, I occasionally checked the Twitter careers page, finally applying for a position and describing my adventure. I may not get an interview but at least they’ll learn about the project, I thought happily, and imagining an email that said, “We’re so glad to know about #IRL!” was just as exciting as imagining a job. But again there was no response. Which prompts my first suggestion —
· Start with the people who support you.
Sprint was my cell phone provider when I lived in Kansas City (in spite of the fact that I always seemed to have terrible service) because I wanted to support my friends who worked at world headquarters. The crowning blow was a basketball game at the Sprint Center where the only person in my family who had service was the one with AT&T. I don’t know much about corporate marketing but making sure your customers have good service in an arena that bears your name seems like a great place to begin building loyalty. The top Twitterati believe in you. They also know best how you need to change.
· Stop tweeting random surveys.
They’re the functional equivalent of telemarketers and even my septuagenarian parents don’t take those phone calls. Instead, face your employees outward rather than in. Incentivize them to find your most creative users and bring those people in to tell you how they’re using your product and why they love it. Read and respond to the tweets that users send to @Twitter. Require your employees to use their accounts to interact with the people in your community.
· Deal with the trolls.
Bring in users who’ve had problems (read: women and people of color) and get detailed information about the experiences they’ve had which should give you clues for fixing them. Require a phone number or other identification in order to have an account and limit the number of accounts a user can create, which will stop the eggheads who make a new one every time they get blocked. Empower every member of your team to take action when abuse happens. The fact that today you blocked @caulkthewagon for no good reason tells me that your “system” isn’t working and requires better human interaction.
· Incentivize good behavior.
Figure out ways to reward those who are patiently doing the work of demonstrating your product on a daily basis. Hell, pay them to teach classes so you don’t lose folks in the first confusing week after creating a profile. I follow politicians and academics and high school kids, activists, preachers and journalists and I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned just by watching how the good ones do their work and build a community all at the same time.
But you still gotta make money.
And though I’m just Annette managing the driveway, I believe monetization is found in Twitter’s highest and best self. Which leads me to Round 2 —
· Listen to your evangelists and find out what they value.
You can eavesdrop on Twitter convos or bring people in to headquarters, but talk to them at every level, from followers of 300 to 3 million. I’ve read the timelines of big-time PR professionals with thousands of followers that felt like someone was selling me a car and those of CMOs who signed every tweet, so the “experts” don’t always know what they’re doing. Investors do not understand your product like your best users do.
· Pay to play.
I’m guessing you’ve considered it and encountered pushback, but why not? Charge corporate users more and let individuals pay a very small monthly amount. We pay for digital access to newspapers. We pay for apps. Almost everyone I know pays for Netflix and Hulu and doesn’t think much about it, even those like me who don’t have a lot of margin. Skin in the game might also keep the haters more accountable.
· Focus on education
Twitter has been the greatest classroom of my life. I’ve listened in on conversations about HigherEd technology and the sociological intersections of hip-hop culture. I’ve learned about computer coding, spiritual mystics, and the intricacies of transgendered identity. I’ve talked to a former tech executive who now lives in a Cambodian slum and a young black woman who was the first person to school me on police brutality and white privilege. My life has grown exponentially because of what I’ve learned on Twitter.
Build curriculum so students can learn current events and geography by talking and listening to peers who are in other locations around the country and the world. Partner students in underserved communities with professionals so they have a vision beyond their neighborhood. You can’t aspire to be a museum curator or a sound designer or a water engineer if you don’t know those things exist, so introduce young minds to these worlds and make space to mentor them. Find companies with a vested interest in outcomes to sponsor partnerships and then teach them how to tweet so they engage with their target audience in meaningful ways rather than just trying to move product.
· Create opportunities for users to build community in their cities.
My project allowed me to meet people I would never have encountered in my real life and I was a person willing to go out well of my way. I just didn’t know how to do it on my own without seeming like a creeper. This week I met up with two Twitter friends for the first time — one from Australia and the other from Canada — not for the project, but because we understood the joy of a real life encounter with someone who said in 140 characters from the other side of the world, “I see you. You matter.” Twitter meet-ups would provide space for face-to-face conversations about race, gender, sexuality, politics, ethics, and healthcare solutions — all of the hard topics — among people who are interested in moving beyond their circle. When someone ceases to become “other” we’re invested in their wellbeing as much as our own.
The truth is I could brainstorm all day and I guarantee you’ve got thousands of users who could as well. If you don’t have answers, it’s because Twitter has been a fortress with its drawbridge up, not because the answers don’t exist. I’m not a venture capitalist or a shareholder or even a tech expert with opinions. But I once got a meeting with a vice president at Belkin because I tweeted at Kieran Hannon, the CMO and he answered. I’ve seen Twitter users crowd source topics from housing and fashion to parenting and academia. I guarantee that if you ask in an authentic way, you’ll get what you need.
Last night when the third person of the day shared Umair Haque’s, “Why Twitter’s Dying,” I snapped (at a priest, to my chagrin), “No it isn’t.” A Google search produces links to multitudinous bluebird death sentences over the years, so maybe I should chill. But I can’t help thinking that if Facebook dies I’ll find a way to see the graduation and vacation pictures of my friends and family. If Twitter dies, or becomes just another bar where you can’t have a conversation for all the shouting, the thread that binds me to people all over the world will unravel. I’ll lose the alarm that sounds when people are persecuted, and classrooms will shutter that could change the lives of others as they have my own.
When Jack Butler finally became a success as Mr. Mom, it wasn’t because he’d worn down his family with the Jack Butler method or learned to do everything the way it had always been done by his wife. It was because he’d found a new compass — a third way that combined practicality and fun, while looking out for the good of them all. I’m wishing you the same.