Leading up to its 10th birthday this spring, Twitter’s future is uncertain. The stock took a nosedive in April and has languished ever since as quarterly earnings continue to highlight sluggish growth. Reports of big changes to the main timeline are surfacing as CEO-again Jack tries to sort out what to do next.
The company also seems to be doubling down on their latest new feature, Twitter Moments. Just last week, the Moments tab was moved to give the feature more visibility. They even launched their first-ever television ad campaign, which highlights the platform’s unique position as a worldwide network for realtime, user-generated news.
But realtime news — the stuff of Twitter Moments, and of so much focus lately — is not what delivers Twitter users unique value. The last thing folks need is more news, after all: We’re already surrounded by it on every screen. Realtime news is merely a byproduct of the highly engaged userbase Twitter has managed to build so far; it’s not the platform’s superpower.
A superpower is something a user has never been able to do before. When you give someone a superpower, they will want to keep using your service.
The superpower Twitter has to offer is reach. It’s the ability for an average person to develop connections with the people they admire, from anywhere in the world, instantly.
The platform gives people the ability to engage directly with the most important people in their areas of interest. It gives normal people the superhuman ability to share their thoughts and opinions with people they’d never normally be able to talk to. Using Twitter, people can connect with local government, get customer service from otherwise unapproachable corporations, and even reach out and interact with the people they see on television.
This has never been possible in the history of the world like it is today on Twitter.
And if Twitter doesn’t start focusing on this superpower, I’m afraid they’ll lose it along the way.
A More Accessible World
In college, I spent most of my time working at the campus newspaper. Freshman year, as a campus beat reporter, I was constantly reaching out to professors and top brass to comment on the latest University of Wisconsin happenings.
This was 2003, so there was no social media, and almost nothing was online. But, hidden behind a set of links on unassuming UW and City of Madison websites, there were online databases you could search to find an email address or phone number for anyone in town.
Most people in Madison didn’t know about these things, but as an 18-year-old freshman, I could talk to literally anybody on campus.
I got to interact with people who were Important™ in Madison at the time. This made me feel like a complete badass. I had a superpower, and I was hooked.
This is what Twitter can do for the entire world.
In the tech industry, everyone is on Twitter. The people you want to raise venture capital from, or the people who designed your favorite language are all right there on Twitter, shouting into the abyss.
The magic of Twitter is that it doesn’t matter if you’re just a random guy — you can still reach out to the CEO of Airbnb, and he might just write back.
I can engage with these people on topics that matter to me, even though I’ve never met them and would never be in a situation to walk up to them in person.
Twitter gives you this superpower, and that’s what makes it special.
Bringing New Users into the Conversation
But despite this incredible power, the current focus of Twitter’s onboarding is about finding big-name accounts to follow that will fill your feed with content.
I just went through the Twitter sign-up process and checked a few boxes for my interests: 90% of the accounts I automatically followed have more than 1 million followers, and only one account had fewer than 100K.
Consuming content from huge organizations has nothing to do with Twitter’s superpower. Passive consumption is not what makes Twitter special, even though Twitter does have incredible content.
Twitter is an active two-way communication network. You can interact with anybody. You can reach out and heart tweets by people you admire, and they might reply.
The goal of Twitter’s new user onboarding should be getting that conversation started.
Show me how to @-reply, and what a heart means. Show me how to gripe at Comcast when they won’t fix my cable bill, and let me watch in amazement when they actually reply to help.
And finally, show me people who I can relate to, who I look up to, and who I want to actually engage with. Don’t show me anyone whose account is run by a PR team.
If I’m really into “Family” — one category I checked off during onboarding — I should be encouraged to follow bloggers and YouTubers and semi-popular local Twitter accounts that care about family. These accounts might actually interact with their audiences, unlike a huge media organization like Parenting Magazine. (If Parenting Magazine does something great, one of those guys is bound to retweet it anyway.)
There should be way less emphasis on media companies and celebrities in Who to Follow recommendations.
This is about doing a better job finding accessible leaders in areas that matter to new users, and introducing them to each other. It’s also less about my interests, and more about my aspirations.
Growing a Bullhorn
Beyond being able to reach out and talk to anyone in the world, there’s something else that makes Twitter special: It’s a place where you can develop your own community.
Most Twitter users will never build much of an audience. That’s OK — they’ll enjoy the unprecedented ability to hear from and talk with previously inaccessible people they care about.
But it’s important that new users do get a sense that someone cares about their contributions, because this is what power users thrive on. You see it with minor celebrities all the time: Their Twitter profiles are them. They tweet and interact continuously with the audience they’ve developed. The time they invest in developing their profiles is incredible.
Power users use Twitter because they know people are listening.
I think there’s a way to simulate the experience with new users, while also highlighting the unique properties of Twitter as a worldwide communication network: Help new users find each other.
Twitter onboarding should give new users an audience, while giving other new users unique content — and people they can reach out and interact with directly.
What if when you signed up for Twitter, you automatically had a small audience of people interested in what you had to say?
This is obviously excruciatingly difficult to get right from an engineering and product perspective. But Twitter has millions of dollars and hundreds of super-smart engineers — and they desperately need a challenging mission.
Bet the farm. Focus on expanding and nurturing the communication platform, not the Moments.
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