Unsolicited Advice For @Jack on How To Get More People To Use And Love Twitter
I asked my 18-year-old sister Alison to rank which social media platforms she’d miss the most if she was banned from using them. She said she’d miss Instagram the most, followed by Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter last. “Twitter seems to be not as popular amongst my friends anymore so I seem to get more of my information from Snapchat stories, Facebook posts, and Instagram posts,” she said (and by “information” she’s referring to catching up with what friends are up to).
Now, this is obviously a small sample size. But I’m a 31-year-old who loves Twitter. It would be top on my list (followed by Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat).
Twitter’s growth has slowed and Instagram is taking the lead in users. Jack Dorsey is back at the helm again as interim CEO, and advice for Twitter from people like Chris Sacca is making waves. With that backdrop, I decided to figure out why people like my sister and her friends don’t care about the platform I love…and what Twitter can do to reverse the trend.
Boiling it down to the basics, people use social media for three reasons: essentiality to daily life (how you get news, or a tool to accomplish a task, or part of a job, or as a supplement to life experiences), connection to circles (catching up with friends, colleagues, family), and as a boredom replacement (since we can’t just stand in line at the grocery store anymore, we have to be doing something). For now, Twitter serves none of those purposes for my 18-year-old sister. That’s what they need to change. Here are some ideas:
- Make it more essential: Twitter is essential to my life but I understand I’m not a normal user — I’m really interested in media coverage, and nothing says media-talking-about-media like Twitter. It’s also great for live events — I’d argue, live events of importance are no longer as fun without also having a Tweetdeck second screen open.
But where Twitter has been less successful is incorporating other areas that could make it more essential to me and to others. Take traffic. Sometimes when I’m stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic I open up Twitter search to see if I can find out why it’s happening. It almost always tells me nothing. But let’s say Twitter bought Waze, a real-time crowd-sourced traffic app that tells you what you’re looking for. With Waze integration into Twitter (‘tweet your Waze comment’ etc), the platform becomes infinitely more useful in this type of situation.
Another great tool is Dataminr. Dataminr, which Twitter is an investor in, is a real-time service that journalists use to tell what’s breaking and where. It emails tweets to you that may be of interest, while also providing a map view. This is incredibly useful and practical, but not just for journalists. Imagine if you, average Twitter user, set up an alert for Twitter to send you an email every time something major happened in sports, or even more specifically, a single sport or a single team. This would engage you more with Twitter as a valuable commodity, and make you more likely to make checking in on Twitter an essential part of your daily life.
- Make certain aspects less permanent: One thing that really separates Snapchat (and another similar app, the disappearing text of Mark Cuban’s Cyber Dust) is the ephemeral nature of the social media output. There’s something pleasingly low-stakes about Snapchat and Cyber Dust. There’s less pressure to put content out into the world that, for all intents and purposes will live forever. Twitter has that problem even more than other platforms like Facebook and Instagram, because their search functionality is so easy and there’s a cottage journalism industry with combing through years-old tweets for embarrassing material (see: future “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah).
This pressure makes Twitter less appealing. It also discourages engagement, since that fast, thoughtless text message-like communication takes place in public and in perpetuity. To a smaller extent, there can be the feeling of wasting a tweet on a short reply. To alleviate this pressure and encourage interaction, I’d recommend an option to make replies disappear after a certain amount of time (say, an hour). This may be counterintuitive, but think of how likely you would be to respond to someone by saying something innocuous if you knew it would go away soon. Think about if my sister and her friends could respond to another friend in agreement or disagreement — simply acknowledging that they saw the tweet — which would give you an alert on your phone that someone responded (a welcome part of Twitter). That’s what’s missing from Twitter in a lot of ways — you get a lot of likes and comments on Instagram and Facebook, but less on Twitter because it feels like a bigger ask. Make it easier by allowing your replies to evaporate, and engagement may rise.
- Follow conversations, not just accounts: When you join Twitter, you’re alerted to certain accounts you may want to follow based on your interests. Or, if your friend is explaining Twitter to you for the first time, they may ask if you’re a fan of certain musicians or celebrities or TV shows. You can follow these people and shows! But…so what?
If you like Miley Cyrus or Kevin Durant and you are prompted to follow Miley Cyrus or Kevin Durant, that doesn’t actually add a lot to your life. Fine, you now follow them. Or if you like “The Bachelor,” and start following the person who is “The Bachelor,” unless you join a conversation about “The Bachelor” your experience is ultimately not worthwhile. If you say you’re interested in “The Bachelor” and Twitter prompts you to follow producers who live-tweet the show and other celebrities who do the same, and writers who recap the show — now it’s helping you shape your experience.
- Hashtag Hubs, with human curation: One of the things Chris Sacca discussed was a human touch in curation/editing, and it would make an enormous difference. It’s funny how universal hashtags have become. I have friends who don’t use Twitter yet understand the way hashtags are used and do so in emails, where hashtags don’t actually provide value other than as a communication tool.
Hashtags are also built-in hubs, but they aren’t used that way now. It’s a clunky process to follow a hashtag, and you get all this other crap in the middle of the really good stuff. If you could take a hashtag, say #NBAFinals, and built a hub for people to visit, it provides a new tab and an easier way to experience the value of Twitter. Let’s say Twitter.com/Hub/NBAFinals brought you to a page that featured the best tweets using the #NBAFinals hashtag — a stream of tweets, but a curated stream by an actual person who understands what kind of content makes the experience better. This would make following the NBA Finals on Twitter more successful than what you can build in your own Twitter stream (which still will be available for you).
Or, for my soon-to-be-college-bound sister — what about a hashtag hub for your college? It would feel like the early days of Facebook — something fun and intimate. It could show what’s happening on campus, while also giving a way for students to find new people to follow.
- Fix the follower count issue: Years ago, Twitter used to force you to opt-out of following a group of 100 or so influencers, so those influencers follower account was greatly inflated. It also had a bot “problem” where fake accounts would follow you and inflate even the average user’s follower count. I put “problem” in quotes, because, was it really a problem? It’s a simple fact…people care about how many followers they have, and they would certainly prefer to have a lot instead of a little.
By cleaning up the bots and making following celebrities opt-in rather than opt-out, it’s significantly harder to get followers, and unless you’re Caitlyn Jenner or President Obama, follower counts are smaller for new accounts than for accounts that started five years ago. This is a problem. One solution — loosen restrictions on bots. Sure, follower counts would be inflated, but ultimately, so what? It’s more fun to acquire followers than to be stuck at a small number, tweeting into the ether. Or, really clean up the old accounts. Kill the dead accounts, the bots, the ghosts. Wipe them clean and normalize between new accounts and old.
Make Twitter more essential for the average person who doesn’t care a lot about news, find ways to increase the community aspect of social media and make it more interesting and fun for the average person who hasn’t spend years cultivating the perfect Twitter stream.
I’m anxious to see what @Jack and whoever the next full-time CEO do next. But for now, I’m going to tweet this column.