Twitter: An Open Love Letter

I love Twitter, I do a lot of work with Twitter’s data, I am an active Twitter user, and I think its capability for global change and influence remains unmatched in the social sphere. I’m not here to eulogize Twitter, but I want to provide a frank discussion of what I think is great about the experience and some concrete suggestions for how to fix some of the problems I see. Some of these are problems we’ve been working on at Graphika, and a few will be up to Twitter to solve. Some of this post echoes the points raised by Chris Sacca in his letter about what Twitter can be, but I am not a Twitter investor and my thoughts are more about features and functionality as an end-user than long-term strategy.

(NB: whenever I say “content”, I mean the aggregated stuff you find of value in tweets — primarily links, discussions, media, jokes, and cat gifs.)

I think Twitter can be a great experience, but it is not the same experience for everybody. For some, the unfiltered stream and the time it takes to produce useful content by cultivating that stream is invaluable, but for others, it’s a chore. Who are you following today? Who’s following you? Are you keeping your stream small enough that you can read all of it, or are you resigned to missing interesting items? Are you logged in? Are you interacting?

Your view of Twitter probably also differs dramatically depending on what your objectives are. Are you looking for news? Are you looking to hang out and chat with your friends? Are your friends even on Twitter, and do you expect them to be? Are you using Twitter for work? Do you expect a lot of engagement when you post things? Are you getting that level of engagement? Are you looking to promote something (a brand, your content, an opinion, a political position)? Are you trying to organize like-minded individuals to some cause? Are you happy with the way people are responding to you? The answers to all of these questions color your experience and expectations accordingly. If you’re a high-profile journalist on Twitter, your experience is going to be very different from that of the average high-schooler, but both can be just as rewarding.

Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Meyer note that, “Something is wrong on Twitter. And people are noticing.”

There’s a common refrain that Twitter is competing with Facebook, and should be more like Facebook to steal ad dollars away from Facebook. I think there is room for both, and their use cases don’t seem to overlap much. I use both social networks extensively, but my social circles on the two networks are about as apart as can be. My Facebook friends are, generally speaking, my friends. They’re the people I know IRL, and some work acquaintances. The people I’m following on Twitter are, for the most part, people I’ve never met, but found interesting for some reason. I would probably never share random pictures of my kids with my Twitter friends (until my kids start doing things they should get public acclaim for. Hold tight.).

Twitter is amazing, but it can be hard to see that with the way it’s currently presented, and it’s hard to generalize about why that is. Users may have many different objectives and stumbling blocks — for new users, it can be difficult to find interesting people to follow, while for more experienced users, it can be hard to build a following. As it is now, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to cultivate your collection of people to follow to get a good experience, and the tools to get yourself noticed are awkward.

So then the question remains — why use Twitter? What does Twitter have that no other social network does?

In short, Twitter is public. That tweets are meant to be seen as widely as possible ingrained in Twitter’s DNA, and that makes it fundamentally different from most other social networks. It’s a place to find out what the world thinks is important right now, to examine the pulse of the public network. But importantly — “the public” isn’t just one audience, and “the world” isn’t just one set of publishers. People who are producing content want it to be seen by people who will be interested in it, people want to see content that they’re interested in, and obviously if you just throw the entire internet together, there’s going to be a lot of mismatch there. Twitter as it stands now is a bit more “egalitarian” than Facebook in that respect — if you publish something, it can be seen by everyone (there is no algorithm in the way artificially holding back content to some small percentage of your audience unless you pay), but that doesn’t mean it will be seen by everyone. Popular tweets will be amplified by the network, but everything else is just happenstance of timing. So the challenge remains — how to solve the problem of connecting the people making content with the people who want that content, and encouraging a good level of engagement to make everybody happy. Some people will want to just consume that content, others will want to give feedback on it, and still others will want to get feedback on their feedback. The key to user happiness is not just in providing the right content, but also in the right level of interaction.

There are a lot of ways to make this better without killing the core that makes Twitter great — the amazing content, the access to express an opinion to anyone (which may be received or ignored), and the timeliness of conversations.

Here are some specific problems I see:

  • It’s too hard to find the right people to follow for your detailed interests. This is a specific problem that we at Graphika directly address with our influencer identification in community segmentation, with a very high degree of specificity. Global popularity is a terrible way to figure out what’s important. If popularity is your only measure, popular items stick out like a sore thumb. It doesn’t take much analysis to tell you that Neil Patrick Harris is popular. Want to know who the main influencers are for Liberal Activists, or the Rheumatoid Arthritis community, or Los Angeles Food, or Data Journalists? We can tell you that (and many others), but Twitter doesn’t really help you out much here.
  • The follower and stream model is a little bit broken. To be sure, the unfiltered stream of people you follow is a great thing, and it should be preserved. It leads to amazing serendipity that can’t be replicated elsewhere — it’s a main way to discover parts of the network we didn’t know we were interested in. But it’s not everything, and it has some drawbacks. If I want to follow everything that someone writes, there’s no easy way to ensure that I see it (lists are cumbersome, and checking individual profiles is infeasible). Similarly, there are probably great discussions going on that you’re not even aware of because you’re not following the right people to hook you in. “While you were away” is not a bad solution for this, but it’s a bit of an afterthought. The biggest drawback is that it still only includes tweets from your timeline, where the best kind of this interaction will necessarily include people you don’t follow (or at least, people you don’t follow yet). Similarly, this is an area we’ve done a lot of work on at Graphika, and we can help you find those interesting conversations. Which brings me to:
  • It’s too hard to follow conversations. The threading model doesn’t lend itself to long involved conversations. I’ve already written about this with respect to what did right and some of what I’d like to see Twitter adopt. Top-level posts and conversation threads are fundamentally different things, and Twitter hasn’t done a great job of making it easy to navigate them. There isn’t even a social agreement about when it’s appropriate to have a conversation. One of my biggest personal frustrations with Twitter is responding to someone I don’t know and receiving no indication of whether they thought my response was appropriate, or funny, or what. Just… nothing. I saw the value in Twitter and eventually figured out that the only real way around it is to interact with enough people that someone will eventually respond, but this is a terrible new user experience and obviously many people don’t power through. So on to the next point:
  • There’s no way to signal when attention is unwanted. Harassment is a huge problem I’m not really going to address here, and Twitter needs to figure it out. But annoyance and rejection are also problems, especially for user adoption. Blocking and muting are blunt instruments that give no feedback to the target of those actions. This may be warranted in the case of harassment, but there are legitimately other unwanted interactions in a public space that don’t reach the level of harassment. Is it ok to inject your thoughts in the middle of a conversation? Many people would say yes, of course — if you didn’t want the thoughts of random strangers then why are you having this conversation on a globally accessible public network? But those interjections can just as easily and very quickly become unwanted, if people just want to have a semi-private conversation with their friends. Twitter needs these social signals. It needs a way to say “don’t take this personally, but please go away, or please go away for now”, as a precursor to deciding that this is harassment. Right now, people learn through experience that their normal social radar isn’t necessarily applicable here, and they get discouraged. A slight corollary to this is that there’s no public way to draw people’s attention to a tweet other than tweeting it at them, which just adds to the confusion of reading someone’s timeline.
  • There’s too much noise, but noise can be difficult to discern from unpredictability. Unpredictability is a great part of the experience, and throwing that away when you’re eliminating noise is a problem. I never know what’s going to be interesting. Using the Graphika platform, Twitter’s inherent noise is substantially reduced as a byproduct of browsing the tweets of interest to particular segments, but this doesn’t solve the whole problem. I’m mostly including this in the discussion because the unpredictability is such a tremendous part of the experience, and overfiltering to provide only one viewpoint is a trap I don’t want us to fall into.
  • Lastly, I believe that third-party innovation was a huge driver for Twitter’s success, and re-embracing the developer community is critical for Twitter’s future.

In a popular Indian parable, a group of blind people are asked to describe an elephant. Each touches a part and declares that the elephant is like that part, when in reality the elephant is all of these things. Similarly, Twitter is many things, and most of them aren’t evident if you only look at an individual user’s experience, or even the experience of your immediate circle of friends. The nature of the network is that a small number of people expressing an opinion can easily look like a common occurrence, and quickly dominate your perspective. I’d like to see the whole elephant.