Twitter Is My Internet Town Square

There are so many people talking about Twitter’s future these days. Many are critical — particularly of Twitter’s plateau-esque slowdown in user growth. Some even want to throw in the towel and hope that a white knight comes in to save the day by buying Twitter. My question: why can’t Twitter be its own white knight?

What’s striking is that in contrast with all the chatter from critics, so many of Twitter’s active user community (myself included) continue to find the service immensely valuable.

People. Love. Twitter.

Here is some of the positive Twitter commentary I’ve run across in the last week:

M.G. Siegler: “a world without Twitter would just be a worse world
Josh Elman: “[Twitter] is still the most important service that I use hourly
James Surowiecki: “If you use, or even scan, Twitter … the service seems as strong, and as influential, as ever

Twitter is a pervasive part of not only the tech culture in Silicon Valley (a place I call home) but it also pervades popular culture. Just a few weeks ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton Musical fame) delivered a brilliant monologue rap on Saturday Night Live and, no surprise, he referred to a “tweet” in the lyrics.

And then there’s the Presidential election: Twitter users on both sides of the political spectrum have flocked to Twitter to share their views and watch the live-streamed Presidential debates.

By the metrics, advertisers still find value on Twitter: in the last year, Twitter brought in $2.5 billion dollars in revenue.

So, yes, I’m a Twitter fan.

Why? Why do I care about Twitter — and why do I hope it remains independent?

I use Twitter to stay current — and to learn

Access to its real-time channel of rich information helps me stay current. Twitter is where I discover new ideas, recent posts, current debates, new technologies, and upcoming events. It helps me with that “lifelong learning” thing that I’ve always cared about.

Not only do I benefit from the platform — there is no other real-time information feed in the world that I could use instead and get the same value. There is only one Twitter.

It was on Twitter that I was reminded that Redmonk’s Monktoberfest conference occurs in October (an annual technology and social event that ignited with this throwaway tweet by @sogrady back in 2011) — and it was the conversation on Twitter that spurred me to reach out to the Redmonk team and travel to Maine to attend this year. Even better, Steve O’Grady’s postmortem of the 2016 Monktoberfest used tweets to highlight the community affection for Monktoberfest.

It was on Twitter that I learned that the O’Reilly Next:Economy conference on the future of business (co-hosted by Tim O’Reilly and Reid Hoffman) was happening in San Francisco — and was able to make plans to head up to SF to connect with Laurel Ruma.

Twitter is the modern-day Internet “town square”

Unlike other social platforms where much of what I see is limited to the walled garden of people I know, the Twitter platform is (mostly) open.

It is a platform where I can “follow” almost any participating user, technology geek, scientist, designer, product manager, engineer, venture capitalist, vidlogger, celebrity, writer, musician, newspaper, magazine, business, startup, brand, or politician. I get a glimpse into what they’re thinking — or at least what they’re saying and sharing.

Because of Twitter, I get exposed to more ideas — and not just more ideas but diverse ideas, ideas outside of my normal circles.

All this information makes me more knowledgeable, more creative, and ultimately more confident.

When I was in Greece on vacation last summer, I spent a lovely evening with my daughter walking in the town square outside of Athens, in the suburb of Nea Smyrni. The warm evening weather was perfect, not too hot and not too cold. And it was wonderful to spend time with my daughter in a country that was brand new to her.

But the real magic of that evening was in watching the happenings in the town square. People of all ages, all shapes and sizes, were in the square. Sitting on benches, in cafes, walking, dining, drinking, playing live music outdoors, kids running around chasing each other. And lots of conversation. The vibrancy of the mythic town square lives in Nea Smyrni to this day.

Twitter reminds me of a town square on a more global scale: a place where people can share breaking news, debate ideas, promote their favorite new music, discuss politics, announce events, and entertain each other with wit and silliness.

Sharing of diverse ideas on Twitter spurs creativity

Diagram from research featured in MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2015: “How Twitter Users Can Generate Better Ideas”

When was thinking about how the information I get exposed to on Twitter helps me be more creative, and helps me connect the dots between different ideas, I ran across this recent study featured in the MIT Sloan Management review. The study suggests that: “employees with a diverse Twitter network — one that exposes them to people and ideas they don’t already know — tend to generate better ideas.”

Twitter also gives me a place in the attention economy to share my ideas with others — to share what I’ve learned, what I’m interested in, what I’m paying attention to.

Twitter gives me a way to learn from people who are not part of my brick & mortar life. Yes, it may be a low-touch connection, but it’s amazing that even a low-touch internet connection makes you feel closer to someone: you know what they’re reading, writing, and talking about.

Is it a foregone conclusion that Twitter is done growing? No.

One of the biggest criticism today’s Twitter-watchers have is the plateau in user growth. Let’s unpack that.

Over the last year, while Twitter’s revenues exceeded a respectable $2.5B/year, the number of monthly active users has only increased from 307M to 317M active users worldwide.

So while Twitter’s user base is growing, many agree: Twitter could grow its user base a lot more. My response to the critics: Twitter’s pseudo-plateau in user growth is a fixable problem.

Let’s face it, today, Twitter is hard for many to get started with. Whether you’re a newly registered user or someone who signed up years ago who has been mostly inactive… trying to get started with Twitter is like walking into a party where it seems like everyone else knows each other and you’re not sure you belong.

Maybe you know that uncomfortable “why did I come” feeling, as you try to figure out: Where is the food? Where are the drinks? Who should I talk to? What the heck kind of country music is that? Is there anybody here (anybody at all?) I’m going to like?

Successfully building a multi-sided market with network effects — that delivers value to both users and advertisers — means you have to get all the details of the recipe right — along with luck and good timing.

And while we all love to look at successful platforms to reverse engineer their ‘path to success’, the truth is the much-lauded path to success is often a hot mess, complete with plateaus and dead-ends and obstacles and moments of despair. The key is to navigate your way through all the obstacles.

I agree with what Ev Williams said: Twitter “still has incredible, unrealized potential.” I believe Twitter can accelerate their user growth — and deliver more value, to more people. They just need to ignore the short-term critics and focus on fine-tuning their recipe for welcoming new (and inactive) users to the party — while continuing to engage and delight active users.

In addition to Twitter’s big bets on live-streaming video and Periscope, there is still a lot of low-hanging fruit to improve Twitter onboarding, notifications, and timeline… to help new users feel welcome to the party.

The good news is that the Twitter team has already been improving in each of these areas over the last year — but they have more to do, and miles to go before they sleep.

A few quick examples of low-hanging fruit to fix: The Twitter home page for non-registered users can do more to entice users to sign up (even Snapchat’s home page has a great “show don’t tell” autoplay video that visually invites.)

When a new user signs up today, much more can be done via email to welcome and guide them on getting started, beyond today’s lonely “Confirm your Twitter account” email.

And Twitter can do a better job coaching newly signed-up Twitter users on their initial Timeline (which is empty.) New users need a clear set of next steps after onboarding. (Example: when a new user signs up for Gmail, they are presented with the simple “Setup progress” map below, an easy-to-understand display that helps them understand their next steps.)

I know some users who have tried Twitter and have given up because they feel like their tweets aren’t heard. They feel lonely.

Their isolated experience is a variation on the old saying: “If a tweet falls in the forest and nobody hears it, was it really a tweet?” Well, that too is a solvable problem. Users shouldn’t have to work so hard to figure out how to build a following and how to connect with people. With today’s machine learning techniques, Twitter can give new users the personalized coaching and encouragement they need.

And even today’s biggest Twitter fans can use help with discovery.

I am sure there are more people I would follow if only I knew about them. That’s where I hope the Twitter team will continue to use machine learning techniques to improve their recommendations. To enable the serendipitous discovery of things like Marcin Wichary’s magical tweetstorm on typewriters, pictured above.

Do you love Twitter?

Do you agree that Twitter can accelerate its user growth? Do you have ideas about what the team can do? I’m curious to see how other people think onboarding and coaching can be improved to help new users feel welcome.

And if you really do love Twitter, please take a few moments to show your non-Twitter friends how it helps you and why you love it. Word of mouth can make a difference. Maybe positive word-of-mouth from you will help turn the tide and prove the critics wrong.

Oh — and if you want to follow me on Twitter: I’m @clairegiordano.