In my last post I briefly introduced the concept of Twitter users associating each tweet they post with a “persona.” The illustration I used was Jessica Alba tweeting as her “entrepreneur” persona (Honest Company founder) and as her “actress” persona. In this post I will explore why personas are useful and what interesting features they could enable.
Many Twitter users publish the majority of their tweets from the single identity they are trying to project to the world. This is primarily because it’s not possible for publishers* or followers to separate tweets by persona. Someone tweeting can’t say “this tweet is from my work persona” nor can a follower say “I only want to see work related tweets from this person.” The only way to divvy up tweets by personas today is for the person tweeting to create separate Twitter accounts and somehow communicate to potential followers, “If you want tweets about X follow this account of mine, if you want tweets about Y follow that account.” That’s not really worth the hassle for anyone. What if it was easier for a Twitter user to publish tweets from different personas? What if it was possible for a follower to easily choose which personas they wanted to subscribe to? Let’s think it through and see what we learn.
* I prefer to use “publisher” when referring to someone who tweets rather than “tweeter” or whatever else it’s called.
Let’s imagine a Twitter user named Rex who works as a software engineer by day and is a sports fan, ballroom dancer, and triathlete by night. Rex’s primary use of Twitter is for personal development; he keeps tabs on what thought leaders are saying about the programming languages and tools he uses for work. Rex also uses Twitter to discuss training plans with fellow triathletes and to chat with (or heckle) people during college and pro sporting events.
What would it take to support personas in Twitter for hypothetical Rex?
When writing a new tweet, Rex must be able to choose which persona he is tweeting from.
Anyone who wants to follow Rex has the option to choose which of Rex’s personas to subscribe to.
When Rex tweets he tags each tweet with the persona it is associated with, and that tag now shows up wherever the tweet is displayed.
Personas give followers the ability to filter noise on a per-account basis. For some of Rex’s followers the previous example tweet about a brick workout has no meaning to them, so they would have to either put up with this noise or unfollow Rex. With personas these followers can simply unsubscribe to Rex’s triathlon persona. Likewise, personas enable users to publish tweets about topics outside of their common public identity without feeling like they are spamming their followers. Also, freeing users from a single persona will help solidify Twitter as a valid reference for learning about non-default persona related topics (i.e. hobbies).
How does Twitter benefit? When a user associates a persona with a tweet they are providing specific context about the tweet’s content. This can be used to help make ads much more relevant. For example, if I had to show you an advertisement below Rex’s triathlon tweet based on the content of the text it would be rather hard (what do bricks, bikes, running, and naps have in common?) But now I would know to show you a triathlon related advertisement. After all, the publisher himself told me that is what the tweet is about.
Less noise for followers and more freedom for publishers means increased happiness for both sides of Twitter’s social network, which should help increase engagement and retention.
What else could personas enable?
Twitter could rank personas, which would open the door to many interesting features. The rankings would be based on a score for each user’s persona based on engagement metrics such as favorites, retweets, replies from followers, and so forth.
Ranked personas could be used to make lists better. For example, instead of manually creating a list of the top 30 NBA personalities with the most followers, I would just define the list as the top 30 NBA personas. This makes list creation much easier and automatically keeps the list’s membership up-to-date; the list is no longer a static set of users that must be created and updated manually. Said another way, the list would be automatically curated for me by Twitter.
Twitter’s current onboarding process gives users a choice of fairly broad, manually curated lists of 40 people to follow. By using ranked personas to generate lists, this onboarding process is now infinitely scaleable and much more individually-tailored, as users can choose to start with the top 40 personas from a narrowly defined topic that they actually care about.
Along the same line, Twitter could create curated feeds. Twitter Lightning promises to deliver event-centered human-curated tweet streams (i.e. scheduled events like the Grammys or breaking news), whereas ranked personas would enable Twitter to also have persona-centered machine-generated feeds.
Personas can aid in the effort of helping users find people to follow. Twitter’s “who to follow” suggestions should put people who have intersecting personas in touch. Discovery can also happen via search, therefore personas (and rankings) should be used as filters when searching to find specific users. For example, I ought to be able to say “show me any software engineers who are interested in ballroom dance and sort them by rank.”
Twitter could onboard existing users by suggesting a list of personas based on what they tweet about, who they engage with, and which websites they visit. Twitter could even recommend personas that other similar users have created.
Twitter should introduce as little extra friction in the existing publishing process as possible. Ideally, Twitter would automagically know the persona a user is going to Tweet from so that the existing publishing flow is unencumbered. Guessing the persona 100% of the time isn’t possible but it wouldn’t take much to get pretty close. For example, defaulting to the most-used persona (such as “work” for Rex) would be right most of the time. Some simple heuristics could help here too. Personas for replies could be based on who you’re replying to and what the original tweet was about. Taking a “Google Now” approach, time and location could be used to help Twitter decide which persona you would want to use. Combining time and location with information about what device you are on (Apple Watch, laptop, iPad, iPhone, etc.) could also provide clues — i.e. posting from his work laptop at noon correlates with Rex’s work persona, whereas iPhone app tweets at Buffalo Wild Wings correlates with his college football persona.
In summary, personas are beneficial for publishers, followers, advertisers, and Twitter itself. They can be used to reduce noise, improve onboarding, curate lists and feeds, and aid in discovery. Arguably, personas would help Twitter to increase engagement, retention, and growth.
If you liked this post, know anyone who might like this post, know anyone at Twitter who might want to shoot the breeze about this post — feel free to reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter @theaustinlyons