It’s pretty late for me and I am exhausted so, of course, my mind has been going off on a tangent instead of shutting down for the night like my body wants it to. What has it going off on that tangent is this idea: what if the WhatsApp successor (working on the assumption that Facebook’s acquisition started a countdown to WhatsApp’s ultimate and total demise) is not Telegram, Secret, LINE, Kik, WeChat or Path but rather something we are probably already using and which could benefit from even more attention? Something like Twitter, perhaps?
You may not immediately think of Twitter as a chat service. It’s more like a stripped down Facebook newsfeed (although Twitter got there before Facebook, I think). Consider this, though:
- Twitter has a private direct messaging feature which is inherently effective against spam because you have to follow the person messaging you.
- As privacy goes, Twitter is really good. This may sound a bit weird because tweets tend to be public but Twitter is an ardent user advocate and protector and doesn’t give up users’ identities or data without putting up a substantial fight first.
- Twitter is almost totally cross-platform and probably reaches more devices and platforms than anything other than Facebook and SMS. This means that anyone using a device more sophisticated that fairly basic feature phones can use Twitter.
- It is currently possible to share images in direct messages too.
If you think about it, Twitter is already pretty well positioned to function as a convenient and popular chat service. It isn’t without challenges, though:
- Twitter messages are limited to 140 characters which can really kill a chat’s flow.
- You can’t direct message more than one person at a time and you can’t message someone who doesn’t follow you. With most chat apps, if you have a person’s number of identifier, you can reach out to them even if they don’t know you exist yet. That opens the door to spam but it means those chat service options are more open to new connections.
One of Twitter’s challenges is an apparent decline in user engagement with the service due to factors like hashtags and @-mentions confusing new users (let’s face it, those conventions make tweets look like code) and new users not really understanding what to do with Twitter in the first place.
What if Twitter were to make a few more changes and risk over complicating the service?
- Allow users to send direct messages to more than one person at a time.
- Allow users to publish tweets to selected lists only (like sharing with specific Facebook lists or Google+ circles). This might require a shared list capability or just the sort of smart visibility and filtering Twitter already has when you begin a tweet with an @-mention so only you, the other person and your respective followers can see the tweet.
- Extend the 140 character limit for direct messages, possibly altogether (one of the nice things about App.net is that it has a really long update character limit).
Part of the challenge is that you may not think of a Twitter as a chat service in that way so it wouldn’t appeal to you from the start. That, alone, could doom the whole idea. Then again, maybe it could work. How would something like Vine’s private video and text messages fit into this considering that Twitter owns Vine? It could be pretty interesting. Instagram essentially has that capability blended with still photo-based private messaging but do you use that part of Instagram?
Something else about Twitter that interests me and may tie into this idea of Twitter as a chat service is Twitter as an identity service too. What appeals to me about Twitter as an identity service is that it doesn’t depend on that identity being a real identity and, at the same time, seems to allow for the identity you create to be more reliable as a consistent digital identity. Just as you can log into services using your Facebook account, you can do the same thing with your Twitter ID and without the overhead your Facebook profile brings to the mix. As an identity system, Twitter is pretty lightweight and, at the same time, useful because it has a strong social engagement side.
As Twitter is at the moment, Twitter as a chat service isn’t a terribly compelling idea. WhatsApp doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, owned by Facebook or not, so why even consider alternatives? On the other hand, if Twitter added more options to the messaging side of the service, it could add enough to Twitter’s appeal to persuade new and existing users to spend far more time in Twitter because it would become a nexus of users’ digital social experience through compelling chat and social sharing through tweets.
A higher level of user engagement means a stronger network effect and growing userbase. That means more value for users, advertisers, investors and brands. That might be something to chat about.