A Tweet for the Future of Twitter

NOTE: This post was also published on my personal blog at https://aruntalkstech.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/a-tweet-for-the-future-of-twitter/

I love Twitter. I use it everyday. So the recent news about Twitter’s less than stellar market performance has me worried. I have long felt that Twitter has a unique place in the online milieu. Unfortunately, it’s a place that everyone except Twitter seems to understand. So I’m putting my amateur product manager hat (turban for me?) on and putting together a set of speculative feature ideas for Twitter to use. I don’t really know if anyone from Twitter will ever read these but here they are nevertheless.

0. Open up the API Floodgates!

This is idea #0 because it’s just that important. All great products eventually turn into great platforms if they want to survive long enough (iPhone, PCs, Government). That’s because a platform is a marketplace that gives those outside the organization that built the product a means to express themselves. It is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that not all good ideas will come from within your organization. And it is good. I hear this is already being addressed so I won’t say more about it.

1. Embrace Your Place as the World’s Breaking News Source

Over the years, Twitter has become a wonderful place for breaking news. Unfortunately, Twitter has not embraced their fate as the breaking news destination for the planet like I imagined they would. When terrorist struck Mumbai in November 2008 Twitter was the best source of breaking news about the event. Long before the TV journalists woke up, people who were there were already tweeting about the incident. The strange thing was that back then, Twitter wasn’t even that big in India. My girlfriend at the time (my wife now) lived in Mumbai and I found myself better informed than she was while sitting hundreds of miles away from Mumbai.

Eventually I figured Twitter would learn to surface world events based on geography. In fact, I was doubly sure that would happen when modern smartphones with location tracking abilities started showing up. None of that happened. Instead, we got the little “trending” tab/pivot which is a poor substitute for what I was looking for. Twitter needs a News view. In fact, I would argue that ought to be the main view of the app. The view needs to be hyper-local and in my face when I wake up in the morning. Human beings are rapacious consumers of news, especially news even remotely relevant to them, just ask CNN. Twitter has the best news sources in the world. So good in fact that CNN, NBC and many other mainstream news sources feed off of Twitter’s feed.

So, idea #1: Build a news view and put it front and center in the main app. If that sounds like too much of a risk, build a Twitter News app and promote the shit out of it. Take my location, interests (who I follow) into account and present the most relevant news that matter to me here. Track engagement and figure out what I care about and then take that data, rinse, repeat.

2. Live Tweeting Shouldn’t be Something Someone Has to Do

Live tweeting events has become a “thing”. Every time an event I care about happens I feel like I must choose which feed to follow. If I follow The Verge’s coverage of an Apple event I know I’m getting a biased albeit in-depth view. To balance out the coverage I also follow live tweets from other publications. But there’s so many, how do I choose? Well, the answer is I shouldn’t have to.

Idea #2: Poach the best editors from online publications, especially those that specialize in pithy, short form content and put them to work curating live tweet sessions from major public events. Imagine a live tweet stream of the next presidential inauguration, or a session of congress about to vote on a major bill, or even a supreme court hearing (are phones allowed in the supreme court?). Remember, everything that is tweeted on Twitter is public by default and Twitter has THE best view on all this data. Again, promote this on the News pivot/app I suggested previously and watch Twitter turn into a true second-screen experience.

3. In Depth Reporting

Twitter has become my go to news source over the years. Despite it’s shortcomings, the fact that I can follow people whose views I respect means that it is the best place for me to find content I am likely to care about. But guess where every link on my Twitter timeline leads: SOMEWHERE OTHER THAN Twitter!

Now I’m not saying Twitter ought to outlaw links to other sites on it’s timeline. No sir! What I am saying however is that Twitter should become a possible destination for long form content. Part of what this will require is for Twitter to acknowledge that human beings sometimes need more than 140 characters to express their thoughts. It is okay to limit what shows up on the timeline to 140 characters. But Twitter has one of the best sources of detailed information about any newsworthy event: the actual testimonies of people on the ground. I find it strange that Twitter does not want to leverage these testimonies and the people behind them.

Idea #3: This is what I like to call guerilla journalism. Some people might know it as citizen journalism, as in the idea pioneered by CNN’s iReport. But Twitter has something CNN does not have. For any given event Twitter knows the most well-informed people on the ground. It also knows the most influential people on the ground. What if Twitter were to turn these people into ad-hoc reporters and pay them to write pieces covering the event after the fact. Because Twitter would give them special access and good tools they will be able to mine tweets for real testimony about what was happening during the event. In many cases, these people are already journalists or influential bloggers trying to drive traffic to their sites. They drive traffic because they expect to be paid by way of advertising dollars or a salary. Well why can’t that money come from Twitter.

The other ancillary benefit this has is that it makes Twitter not only a source for breaking news but a source for analytical pieces that come AFTER the event. Look at all the pieces that were written about the riots in Ferguson after the fact trying to analyze exactly what happened there. Why can’t those pieces live on Twitter properties. A lot of them are ALREADY using quotes from Twitter.

I want to believe that Medium is an effort to plug this gap but the lack of a clear ramp from Twitter to Medium makes me think that might not be the case. Also, what’s my incentive to write long form content on Medium versus my own blog or my employer’s blog?

4. A New Source for Relevant Video

This idea follows from the previous one. Today, if you follow a link for long form video coverage of an event it invariable leads to YouTube or the news outlets own video player. Yet, at least some of these people would gladly record the video as part of their tweet. I had hoped Vine would grow out of it’s stupid 6 second limit to fill this gap but it took the coming of Meerkat/Periscope for Twitter to wake up to the power of video.

To be honest, while I criticize Twitter it does look like they are addressing the news video gap with Periscope. However, the way Periscope has been presented to the public isn’t right. For one thing, it has been relegated to a separate app and second, it is presented as something that has to do with frivolous live content. This is easily rectified however. Twitter needs to get the guerilla journalists I talked about above to cover news events using tools like Periscope. They also need to make it possible for people to get already recorded videos into Periscope and indeed the main Twitter timeline. If a guerilla journalist took a nice video camera to a newsworthy event they should be able to get it into Twitter easily and quickly.

Idea #4: Bring long form video (including live video) into the main Twitter app and work with the likes of GoPro to get it easy to tweet a video. Invest in Hyperlapse like technology to make the job of amateur videographers easier. Hire news video editors, take videos from influential tweeters and edit them down into mainstream news style vignettes with the tweeters consent of course. And pay the tweeters a cut of the revenue they generate for their efforts.

Conclusion

I would love for an enterprising product manager in Twitter to pick up these ideas and use them. Smarter people than myself will see that all of the ideas above are monetizable either by advertising or other means. Really, all of these ideas are nothing new. These are things that mainstream journalism has been doing for years. But I’d like to see Twitter use it’s unique place in the world to enrich investigative journalism, hyper-local reporting, breaking news coverage and news video. ALL of these things are within reach. Twitter has the potential to become the news source of record for the whole planet.

In the end, I feel like Twitter spends too much time competing with the likes of Facebook on their own turf. Twitter is a social network yes, but that’s only part of it. There is so much that is unique about Twitter and they need to learn to play to their strengths. I’d be very very sad if Twitter became to Facebook what Ebay became to Amazon. That is, wait so long to leverage their unique strength that the other guy just came in and took their potential from them.

@aruntalkstech