The Four Most Important Words at Twitter
“We want to instantly connect people everywhere to what’s most important to them.” @dickc
Twitter’s new mission statement is 80 characters long but needn’t be more than 40: instantly, connect, everywhere, and important are the four words essential to both understanding Twitter’s success and moving the platform forward from a compelling idea to a powerful, ubiquitous force in the marketplace of information and commerce.
First, Twitter needs to define instantly and clarify if they want to prioritize ease of use or speed of use. Second, one of Twitter’s greatest attributes is allowing users to connect over a continuum of intimacy and familiarity, and they need to leverage that strength as web surfing continues to wane. Third, everywhere clearly means internationally, but Twitter could also utilize its platform to magnify hyperlocal culture as well. Finally, important demonstrates how two of its current attributes—the hashtag culture and the asymmetric follow—have the potential to make Twitter more relevant than its counterparts.
Twitter’s real-time attribute is one that truly differentiates it from other platforms who have tried to mimic this ability with varying degrees of success. For example, Google has rolled out Google Instant to increases access speed and Facebook has tried to encapsulate the real-time contributions of its ecosystem members with its publication of Facebook Trends.
But the word instantly is actually confusing; does it mean rapidly or easily? We’ve entered an age when these concepts are often synonymous. Or more precisely, we assume that ease relies on rapidity. To distinguish these, however, is important, particularly in dealing with information. For information goods, the goal is connecting users to their key interests easily, with rapidity playing an important supporting role. One of the issues that Google is facing right now is that the information obtained from queries is not as relevant as it once was, even as the speed of access has increased.
I hope Twitter will make the opposite tradeoff: ease over speed. For example, when onboarding new users, Twitter could provide a chance to rate a few Tweets or users in the same way that Neflix leverages collaborative filtering to improve recommendations for an individual’s queue. Sure, this process isn’t as fast, but it makes selecting people to follow a more digestible task.
Connect is an appropriate word to describe what Twitter does. It describes the correct intimacy level between Twitter followers, though not the intimacy level of friends on Facebook or information on Google. For example, on Facebook, we say “he defriended me.” We don’t say, “he disconnected me.” Furthermore, the coolness of our relationship with Google search results might be described as “linking to our results” not “connecting to our results.” I believe one of Twitter’s greatest attributes is that it allows users to connect along a continuum of intimacy. Twitter can connect us with friends and family (high intimacy, high familiarity), but it can also connect us to Conan O’Brien (low intimacy, high familiarity) and Whole Foods (moderate intimacy, moderate familiarity).
Twitter’s use of connect also connotes that they’ll be the ones doing the connecting, and the user won’t be doing as much searching. And of course, it’s the perfect time to be marketing such a function. Anderson and Wolff (1) asserted in Wired Magazine in September 2010 that the “web is dead.” First, they suggest that “fast beats flexible,” meaning applications that are designed and maximized for a single purpose are gaining more prominence when compared to the multifunctional and adaptable web. In addition to the increasing preference of consumers for focused functionality, consumers are routinely checking fewer sites. In 2001, the top ten webpages accounted for 31% of all pageviews; by 2010, they accounted for 75% of pageviews. These two traits are linked, and they point to a future where platforms that reduce noise, as Twitter has the potential to do, are in even greater demand.
Twitter is expanding internationally, as it did officially last week in Korea; but everywhere could also suggest intra-local and hyperlocal expansion. For example, on trending topics a user can already down-select from WorldWide to San Francisco, but what about down-selecting further to neighborhood? What if, for example, a user wants to down-select to Marina to find a local hangout or browse which veggies are most popular at the Fort Mason Farmer’s Market?
This hyperlocal potential for Twitter has the ability to simultaneously reconnect us with our surroundings while keeping us connected online. In The Long Tail, Anderson (2) recognizes that “before the industrial revolution, most culture was local.” Twitter, and a range of other platforms that couple unconstrained distribution with geotagging events and enterprises, may once again increase local culture. Paradoxically, perhaps the time period with no connectivity and the time period of ubiquitous connectivity might have more in common than the time period that separates them. Sure, Twitter can connect us to the riots in Egypt, a noble and important function, but it can also connect us to our own zip code in an innovative and powerful way.
And now for that difficult word important. By most important, Dick Costolo is tying Twitter’s mission back to relevance, a seemingly subjective, individual thing.
Twitter’s approach has been multi-faceted: Limited character length and hashtags cultivate specificity. In some cases, Twitter is painting a more exact picture to advertisers than other platforms. For example, both Twitter and Facebook published their top trends of 2010. Contrast the Number 3 on the two lists: Inception (Twitter) and Movies (Facebook). This difference in specificity is important because people don’t generally market movies, they market a specific movie. The granularity of Twitter’s trend mirrors marketers’ familiarity with maximizing SEM campaigns based on combinations of keywords. It’s not clear whether this discrepancy in specificity is due to differences in ecosystem, technology, or user base, but Twitter is currently providing more specific trends about the market.
In addition, the asymmetric (3) nature of following third parties conveys information in a unique way, and by orchestrating a platform that does just that, Twitter has altered the definition of relevance. A common tension often discussed by marketers is the tension between stated preferences from consumers and revealed preferences for the same consumers. As Henry Ford once famously noted, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse.’” Thus, Twitter has tweaked our understanding of relevance by creating a semi-stated/semi-revealed category through the asymmetric follow.
Twitter’s new mission is not easy to achieve, but it is one that has great potential as a value-creating exercise for all of us. How they intend to implement the specific meaning of their mission and whether they take advantage of its full potential is yet to be seen.
This article originally appeared in Business Insider, January 2011: http://www.businessinsider.com/newmission-twitter-2011-1
(1) Anderson, C., & Wolff, M. (2010, September). The Web is Dead. Wired.
Retrieved January 27, 2010, from http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/08/ff_webrip/all/1
(2) Anderson, C. (2006). The Long Tail. New York: Hyperion.
(3) I’m not aware of an exhaustive list of people who have written or spoken about this
quality, but I know that Tim O’Reilly has mentioned it (http://radar.oreilly.com/
2009/05/goodreads-vs-twitter-asymmetric-follow.html), and John Battelle has
also made similar points on his blog (http://battellemedia.com/).
(4) Some portions of this post were sourced from my other writings posted here: