Twitter going mainstream by not being social.

Not a social networkIt's hard to believe that it was over five years ago that I started talking about social media's dream of going mainstream.

I said that it would happen when social services became part of everyday life, part of what we normally do and sat invisibly in the background.

We can talk all we want about having billions of accounts but numbers are only part of the story; we need to look at how services are used. Twitter, more than the others, seems to finally be achieving this new status with the likes of TV agreements (making it the second screen network of choice) and the recent announcements of instant NFL replays and crisis alerts.

By being a data channel rather than a social channel (albeit one that allows for social interaction) Twitter is positioning itself as a bite-sized traditional media style service for the Internet age.


Service updates such as the recent conversation view keep us in the social mindset but the new ethos leading up to the IPO involves making Twitter a point of discovery for anyone with or without the need to actually be social.

Social discovery is something I've been going on about for a while, especially in the context of Twitter. The service has needed a way for new users to be able to find interesting content and things that matter to them in order to invest in the platform and, possibly, start tweeting.

The #discover tab started moves in this direction but didn't iterate as much as expected. The rumours that it will be shelved in a future update is, therefore, not that surprising but a better alternative must be found.

Why Twitter?

You can see what Facebook was trying with Home: altering the context by taking your social content outside of the social sandbox. Facebook was also first to have strong connections to the 'normal web' with the Open Graph so why is Twitter the social network that seems to be making the biggest "mainstream" inroads?

There are two factors, in my opinion, which have caused Twitter to lead the way:

  • its innate simplicity, even after UI & service changes, and
  • the deals it has done for content originating outside of the network

Here is the news

Twitter made it's public mark as the go-to home of real-time, crowd sourced news as far back as May 2008 when a massive Earthquake hit China. On the ground reports from normal people "as it happened" far faster than normal media channels could manage made the world sit up and take notice of a service that had been previously seen as just a geek playground or a passing fad.

I remember watching Robert Scoble collating all the information he could find and retweeting it to the rest of us mere seconds after being published - it's a small world on Twitter!

Events such as this led many to view social, especially Twitter, as an RSS replacement years before Google decided to sunset Reader. Not only could you follow the accounts from your favourite blogs (who would be tweeting their posts) but get the thoughts of others and a wider context all in one place.

Bring this right up to date and you have shared links served up within Safari on iOS7 - social news without the need for a social app. Some have criticised Apple and Twitter for tucking this away in Safari Favourites but they are thinking "socially" rather than as Joe Public - there is a different mindset at work.

By the back door

I used to say that social would go truly mainstream via the back door (by incorporating it into our normal daily tasks) and this certainly appears to be the way we are heading with the current shift in focus.

Twitter is embracing the non-tweeters with content while Google+ seeks to expose itself to a wider audience via it's commenting service. The trick is to latch on to whatever people already enjoy doing and add a social element without placing too much of an imposition upon the user.

Twitter seems to be closest to finding the right balance.

This post is an updated version of one that originally appeared on Google+ here.

Image by whatleydude

Colin Walker Colin Walker colin@colinwalker.blog