A forgotten anniversaryComments

I had envisaged that I would write something profound on the 1st December: the one year anniversary of me not posting to Twitter.

But I didn't.

I had completely forgotten it until reading Vincent Ritter's post about micro.blog in which he also mentions "quitting Twitter" in December last year:

"In December of last year, 2016, I decided to not post to Twitter anymore. Eventually taking an archive of all tweets and then deleting them from Twitter."

Unlike Vincent I didn't take an archive, just deleted everything and marked my account as private.

Boom, done!

But I haven’t abandoned Twitter completely - I occasionally use it to conduct searches about breaking news, traffic, football matches - and still can’t bring myself to delete my account.

I thought it was because I still considered it part of my online identity, having had a presence there for almost 11 years, but that’s actually not it at all.

I realised that the only reason I keep my account is because the mobile search experience when not logged in is so poor!

Twitter makes great stock of the numbers of tweets seen by those who aren’t logged in, maybe aren’t even users, viewing them embedded elsewhere on the web. Yet when visiting their own site in a mobile browser it is almost impossible to find anything useful.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever tweet again; I’m even less likely to reinstall their app.

Still, it has it’s place and I get what I need from it, when I need it, without having to get mired in the feed.

A forgotten anniversary

Making the darkness conscious

I read this article arguing that Facebook should be regulated in the same way AIM was when the ill-fated AOL & Time Warner merger happened.

AOL was forced to open up the relationship data between individuals in AIM to allow third parties to interop. You could finally use your social graph in other apps.

This was all years before the major social networks we know today were even considered, let alone became the force they are now. The term 'social graph' wasn't even in anyone's vocabulary.

This was and is a big thing for the open web - it's not just the data that should be your own, transferable between different systems, but also your relationships. How two people converse on the web should not be solely controlled by a single company.

It instantly reminded me of a post I wrote back in August 2010 when I asked "are social platforms the next Microsoft?"

Microsoft was criticised and, eventually, censured for abusing its monopolistic position and forced to allow other browsers the same access to Windows as Internet Explorer while offering users an immediate choice of which one they used.

I wrote that Facebook and Twitter were acting like Microsoft of old, abusing their position and (effectively and literally) stealing the ideas of smaller startups who were unable to compete.

As such I wondered if this could put them at risk of censure themselves.

Fast forward seven years and they are still at it, especially Facebook which has made a not so subtle point of copying everything that Snapchat pioneered while amassing over 2 billion monthly users.

It's as though the reach and impact of social networks has been grossly underestimated; surely, those silly online services are nothing more than time sinks?

Wrong!

But it's only now that those pesky Russians are implicated that the need for some kind of regulation is being taken seriously. Maybe the Cold War never really end - it just moved online.

We've seen time and again that social networks can be dangerous places with equally dangerous degrees of influence.

Facebook has a de facto monopoly with a wider reach than any media company, no, any company in history. Connecting the world is theoretically a good thing but divisions will always exist - trying to force a utopian ideal upon everyone ignores those divisions and only causes resentment and an eventual explosive backlash when that resentment can no longer be contained.

As Carl Gustav Jung wrote:

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."

We have to recognise and experience both sides in order to rationalise the whole.

Facebook and Twitter have been too reactionary: only acknowledging a problem after having it repeatedly pointed out to them. Then, of course, the issue becomes a priority with the promise of more hires to police it and the best minds to come up with a solution.

But then something else becomes a problem - subsequently a priority - and, before you know it, this "crack task force" is allegedly working on three, four, five issues with little evidence that any are actually being resolved to any degree of satisfaction.

To not realise, or blatantly ignore, that these systems which can be incredible forces for good can also be remarkably destructive is irresponsible, if not negligent, especially so as the warning signs have been obvious, and repeatedly pointed out, for years.

But Jung's quote above concludes with:

"The later procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular."

With this in mind, perhaps it's unsurprising that regulation has not yet occurred.

Making the darkness conscious

Twitter, Live and Change

In his Stratechery post "Twitter, Live and Luck" Ben Thompson argues that Twitter could really commoditise live by truly thinking digitally and operating in a way that is only possible thanks to the web:

"Imagine a Twitter app that, instead of a generic Moment that is little more than Twitter’s version of a thousand re-blogs, let you replay your Twitter stream from any particular moment in time. Miss the Oscars gaffe? Not only can you watch the video, you can read the reactions as they happen, from the people you actually care enough to follow. Or maybe see the reactions through someone else’s eyes: choose any other user on Twitter, and see what they saw as the gaffe happened."

In a manner of speaking I agree. I have previously said that Moments should be more interactive, allowing for live responses rather than just a curated block of tweets but to say that a better Twitter allows you to replay events is not commoditising live, it is just another way of recording and replaying, another way of recycling the news, albeit in a very specific form.

Live

The number of people who have taken to deleting their historic tweets and then using a third party tool to continually remove items beyond a certain age shows that users, perhaps more than Twitter, understand what "live" actually represents.

Live is now, not then. Live is in the context of both the event and time, not a re-streaming of it.

Yes, a replay as described would place individual tweets in context with others but the world will have moved on. If the numbers of users regularly deleting their tweets increases then some of this context is also being lost.

Newspapers suffer because they are out of date before they have even been printed. TV news superseded them by being able to provide more current coverage broadcast straight to people's homes but the web takes it one step further by doing away with the need for a reporter or camera crew; the public reports its own news in an ongoing collaborative experience.

Ben's criticism of Twitter's goal "to become more like old media, instead of uniquely leveraging digital" is to be applauded, but to argue the network's unique selling point could be just a way to replay events seems counterintuitive, no matter how technologically impressive the means of that replay may be.

True, generic Moments do not provide enough value. Moments you can follow and from which you receive ongoing updates in your stream are better but are uncommon and still rely on manual curation which will be subject to the usual risks of bias and unbalanced or limited sourcing.

Too good

Let's take a step back.

What is commodisation? It is the process whereby something is so widely available it becomes indistinguishable from alternatives and therefore interchangeable with them.

Ben's article states that Twitter was too good from the outset, it captured exactly what it was trying to achieve and did not need to iterate to find its product fit.

By this token we could argue that Twitter has already perfectly commoditised live.

If Twitter hit its sweet spot so early and so easily then tweets are already the perfect commodity: one virtually indistinguishable from the next, flowing by with comments from one person effectively interchangeable with those of another.

Events on Twitter are encapsulated within this flow, all presented in the same manner; live is just an endless stream of 140 character utterances.

Different is good

Perhaps Twitter actually needs to encourage differentiation. Rather than trying to commoditise live it should be trying to highlight what is special, important.

Moments was actually a first step, an acknowledgment that particular events were considered important or interesting enough to be separated from the stream and presented in a special way. But we still had to seek them out, make the effort to leave the lazyness of the flow and do something different.

What if Twitter automatically pushed us breaking news or trending topics, placing them into our feed instead of us having to seek them out via a different tab. What if we had the option of then following updates from one or more of these events in our feed in real time with the option to jump in, and contribute to, individual event streams as they are unfolding.

What if Twitter made more of an attempt to differentiate individual tweets, pushing them to us just as it tried to draw us to them.

We already have different font sizes on our profiles to indicate our "best tweets" and can pin those we deem most important to the top. Imagine if Twitter did this with the main stream.

Breaking news items could be automatically placed at the head of the feed using a variant of the regional trending options. Events of global importance could be pinned for all users whereas those of a more local nature would be restricted. The relative importance could also be reflected in how much the tweet stood out.

Luck and change

Absolutely Twitter was lucky to hit on a winning formula but it also provided a perfect solution at the perfect time - most just didn't know what they wanted to do with it, and still don't.

Companies are successful when they see an opening and design a product or service to fill it. Needs, and fashions, change over time and the opening is no longer plugged in the way it was meaning the product or service has to iterate, change.

But change is Twitter's biggest problem.

For so long it didn't change which resulted in complacency for the organisation and comfort for the user. Twitter believed it didn't needed to change while users got settled and resist any attempt to do so.

Everyone agrees that Twitter is struggling and that something needs to happen. No one can agree on what that thing actually is but almost everyone seems reluctant to accept their current service could be altered.

Change it for others but not for me.

But change it must or be forever locked in its existential battle. Twitter has a mission - to "become the first screen for everything that’s happening now" but the last thing it needs is to become the digital equivalent of a 24 hour news network, recycling the same material.

If Twitter is live then it should be live: be first, be fasted, be there, be now, and let the rest worry about replays.

Twitter, Live and Change

The cross-posting dilemma

They say exposure is everything on the social web and best practice advocates cross-posting to multiple platforms to gain the most exposure we can. I can't help but have a dilemma with this.

Much of the reason I stopped posting on Twitter was the environment I found myself in every day and a key trigger was when my Nuzzel daily summary email had Trump in the title of every story.

Twitter has changed.

Not so much as a company or a platform, but what it contains. We are at a turning point where just about everyone is talking about the same things. Everyone is political now, whether it's about Brexit or Trump or beyond.

We follow specific accounts for specific purposes but now even those are talking about news and politics.

We used to talk about serendipity on social networks, those happy accidents when people and content would briefly align but serendipity is all but dead because everyone is talking about the same thing.

Breaking stories would always gather pace, trend and take over for a few news cycles, but now our feeds are one never ending story, inescapable and all consuming.

An unsatisfactory social experience is often blamed on bad account management and following the wrong people. By that definition, just about everyone has become "the wrong people."

Medium

Escaping to concentrate on the blog seemed the only solution. There I can cover the topics I want and cross-post to Medium for (hopefully) that all important exposure.

Medium, however, is suffering from the same ailment as Twitter, although to a slightly lesser degree.

It is good that people are passionate. It is good that they want to become involved and push for what they consider the best interests of society. But the vitriol being poured forth in the name of what's best is often as intolerant as the ideas being complained about.

The platform is suffering and people are leaving because of it.

Medium's strength is also its biggest frustration - the network effect empowers us, exposes us to more people but having to rely on others in order to be seen is hard.

We see a bump in reads but realise that it is only for our responses and not for our original content - making us just an observed contributor, viewed because we have become attached to someone else's work.

The dilemma

A feature of Micro.blog will be cross-posting back to Twitter so your followers there can keep up to date with what you're doing. Having sworn off Twitter, however, I am dubious I want to start pushing updates and getting dragged back into that environment.

Just like Medium, the value is in the network and its engagement; just pushing updates and not interacting has no benefit, it's like whispering into the Grand Canyon and people don't follow links any more. But that required engagement risks becoming mired in a quicksand of negativity.

Considering this, and the double-edged network effect, also makes me wonder why I persist in cross-posting to Medium. Am I being hypocritical?

Hope

Rather than just hitting publish and letting the WordPress plugin do its thing, that I am still investing time and effort on Medium reflects that it has not yet plumbed the same depths as Twitter.

With the uncertainty over Medium's latest pivot and any new business model it is natural to wonder if this is still the place to entrust our creativity to. There is hope they have caught it in time.

With Micro.blog being a completely new network fuelled by that pioneer spirit there is hope that it can flourish whilst avoiding the pitfalls experienced elsewhere.

Maybe there is even hope that Twitter will settle or that we'll get new ways to see what we want to see and avoid what we don't.

Maybe then I'll start cross-posting.

The cross-posting dilemma

Life without Twitter

For a number of reasons I decided to take a break from Twitter - some of you out there may moan "not again!" as I've taken social hiatuses before.

But, with the way 2016 has been, and things going on in my life offline, I decided to step away. So, on December 1st I stopped tweeting1, uninstalled the app from my phone and took the drastic step of deleting all 13K plus of my old tweets.

I needed to reevaluate how and why I was using the network and, as Twitter is "live", when/if I return I considered the old tweets to be largely irrelevant.

For now, however, I decided to live life without Twitter, but there's a catch:

It doesn't exist!

Twitter is where people go to announce and denounce, congratulate and complain, celebrate and mourn.

News happens ON Twitter and gets reported elsewhere - you can't avoid it. Journalists no longer need to conduct interviews and seek out sound bites, they just fire up Twitter and write their stories 140 characters at a time. Tech press, mainstream media, it doesn't matter; exposure to Twitter (or at least tweets) is now almost universal.

The amount of coverage it gets is grossly disproportionate compared to the likes of Facebook with a much larger active user base. It just illustrates how wrong active users is as a benchmark for how vital a service actually is.

Twitter flows through the veins of modern culture. Even if you're not tweeting, don't visit the site or use the app, it is always there.


  1. with the exception of a tweet on 26th December commemorating the 10th anniversary of joining 
Life without Twitter

Social Proof

Over the years I've written a lot about online identity and influence but, for the average user coming to social media without an agenda, what does it actually mean?

Look at the term "social proof."

The definition of the term in psychology reads as follows:

Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation.

In other words, if you don't know how it is appropriate to act in a given situation you will observe what others are doing, assume it is correct, and act in the same way.

Conformity through uncertainty.

Contrast this with normative social influence which is the state of conformity in order to be accepted and liked by others.

In marketing, social proof works by using ratings and reviews to convince potential new customers that this is the product or service they should be buying. Businesses use queues (often artificially engineered) to create the impression of popularity while price and admission policies create the illusion of exclusivity.

On a social network such as Twitter we have none of this. All that we have available is what users can see on your profile which is why social media rapidly became a numbers game.

The number of followers and the number of tweets.

That's it. That's all we've got.

We hope that people will follow us because others already do - that potential new audience makes a decision based on numbers as to the worthiness of an account: are they popular and do they post regularly in sufficient volume to be interesting.

That's not enough. That's not social proof.

Some people will fall into the trap of normative social influence, liking the same accounts and sharing the same links as everyone else in order to be liked themselves, to get likes, and hopefully followers. They do what they think is expected of them rather than what they want to do.

And we fall into a vicious cycle where these accounts grow because they are seen to be popular but are only popular because they aim to share what is deemed popular rather than being the voice of an individual.

False and fake

The degree of falseness on social media is extraordinary and depressing.

Social proof also falls down when a large proportion of the numbers at play are false. When so many of the accounts on our networks are bots which like, retweet, reply and even follow purely based on keyword triggers.

We have recently seen how damaging and disruptive fake news can be but, stepping away from the more nefarious intentions of some, we can see a wider problem when we consider the "social proof loop".

Although fake news is a problem when used by certain parties as propaganda it is also becoming a spectator sport with individuals on the lookout for items to share for their entertainment value.

Unfortunately, this isn't always clear.

Sarcasm and satire get lost in translation thanks to those three little words: shared without comment.

Enough!

Social Proof

Confirmation bias

I try to follow people that challenge me, that have different opinions to my own and different world views but there is only so far we, as individuals, tend to go when left to our own devices.

We like it when people agree with us; we get a warm cosy feeling when our ideas are validated and fee attacked when someone disagrees - that is what Facebook relies on.

Facebook is heavily lambasted for the way the news feed places us firmly in a filter bubble but it is a clever ploy to keep us within its walls, to avoid the confrontation that might drive us away.

But my Twitter feed has been the ultimate example of confirmation bias and, despite my attempts to the contrary, I only have myself to blame.

I don't follow that many people but don't think anyone in feed was openly a Trump supporter during the presidential campaign. I thought there was no way Trump would win because I wasn't exposed to the massive ground swell of opinion outside of my social circles.

That's not down to an algorithm, that's purely down to me and the choices I have made.

I'm not sure which is scarier.

Confirmation bias

Twitter: pay to play – part 2

The idea that Twitter could charge a membership fee, and instantly solve its business problems, is a popular one:

With even just a percentage of users paying a monthly fee to use Twitter it could still be very good business, potentially to the value of $3 billion which is more than Twitter's current revenue per year.

But I can't help feeling this isn't a zero sum game.

Although I said that, in my survey, 55% of people wouldn't pay to use Twitter I suspected that that figure would actually be much higher. In fact, it has since risen to 68% as more people have responded.

Although the survey was relatively small, and not necessarily representative, it was held within a forum that is focused on X discussion about Twitter; the expectation is, therefore, that most members would be passionate about the network to some degree.

For over two-thirds of users within such an environment to completely dismiss paying to use a social property is quite telling, and who knows how much higher it would be once extrapolated to the wider user base.

Audience is everything

The problem is that those people most likely to pay the fee are, themselves, most likely to be power users and news makers rather than casual users and consumers.

This could lead to an unhealthy imbalance between sections of the Twitter population with, perhaps, many casual users voting with their feet and moving to another (free) network.

If charging for access leads to a reduction in active users the value of Twitter declines and potentially goes into a downward spiral. With a smaller audience are the news makers still likely to use Twitter or will they seek other venues?

If the attraction of a paid service is that it creates sufficient friction such that trolls do not sign up then, by extension, we cannot have a two-tiered system unless the free tier is heavily restricted.

But then a lot of users, who are unwilling to pay, would be left with crippled accounts and considering their future on the network.

Twitter: pay to play – part 2

Twitter: pay to play?

Twitter's Q3 financial results, tweet impressions and user growth were better than expected giving some slight optimism that things may be turning a corner.

They were no doubt helped (spiked?) by the US presidential campaign and debates but new avenues such as the NFL live stream deal seem to have played their part.

However, as I wrote last time, the network's abuse problem is widely viewed as the source of many of its problems so it was reassuring to see the latest shareholder letter include the following:

For the past few months our team has been working hard to build the most important safety features and updating our safety policies to give people more control over their Twitter experience. Next month, we will be sharing meaningful updates to our safety policy, our product, and enforcement strategy.

Money for tweeting, ads for free

Before the results and letter were published I wrote this in a private forum:

One of the ideas that has been floating around for ages is that of a freemium model for Twitter. So, the question is: would you pay to use Twitter?

Is Twitter close enough to being a utility that it could justify a monthly fee? Would there need to be an ad-free tier for paying users or would providing some kind of premium functionality be a better option? Does Twitter provide sufficient value to its users?

The answer depends on who you are, why and how much you use it.

From a business perspective Twitter would need to work out if the fees sufficiently offset (or bettered) what they could charge for advertising. If the paid tier was ad-free then the potential "eyes on" would be reduced meaning they may have to charge less for advertising.

But I also wondered how charging for Twitter might affect the abuse problem, a question echoed by Greg Pinelo:

Obviously, his implication was that you would be charging everyone and that the fee introduces an element of friction that may deter some trolls from signing up, but it could go further.

Currently, accounts can be completely anonymous and trolls can get away with all sorts without fearing repercussions beyond Twitter suspending their account. So what? Trolls will just create a new one, again perfectly anonymous, and carry on like nothing happened.

If people paid to use it, however, then you have an actual, real world ID linked to accounts in users payment details. Would this act as a deterrent for some?

In addition, if a known troll has had their account suspended for behavioural issues it becomes harder to create new accounts if they try to re-use the same payment details. From this point of view the money becomes less important than the data.

There's a but

When presented with the option of paying for a service or getting a slightly worse experience for free most people will opt for free.

Getting people to make the jump is hard.

The free experience has to be good enough to keep people coming back and good enough is going to be okay for the majority. With the option of going elsewhere (also for free) you can't try to force people to pay by making your entry tier frustrating or inconvenient.

In the private forum mentioned earlier, I ran a poll alongside my thoughts. Relatively small percentages of those who responded wanted an ad-free experience or premium features for their money but 55% chose the option "I don't use it/love it enough to justify paying."

By enforcing payment not only might you keep out the trolls but potentially also a large proportion of the casual users who would never consider parting with their hard earned cash, no matter how nominal the fee.

Stuck

So it appears that Twitter is stuck with its current model and will have to rely on its new safety policy and enforcement strategy to reduce the abuse on the network or risk halving its user base.

The policy will have to be a lot more transparent on exactly what qualifies as abuse or harassment and what the punishments are for any infractions.

But a policy is worth nothing without adequate, consistent, and again, transparent enforcement: say what you'll do, do what you say, and let everyone know WHY!

Twitter: pay to play?

The wake up call Twitter needs?

With it emerging that both Disney and Salesforce pulled out of an acquisition because of trolls, online bullying and corporate image is Twitter finally going to get the message about its abuse problem?

One of the biggest criticisms is that the company doesn't do enough to proactively combat abuse on the network, instead just reacting to high profile incidents like those involving Leslie Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos to demonstrate that it taking action.

When reporting abuse against someone else users have had their complaints dismissed because they concern a third party. More still reveal that blatantly abusive behaviour is deemed not to contravene Twitter's idea of acceptable use.

No wonder people become disillusioned and close their accounts.

It is one thing to advocate free speech but another entirely not to act when the ideal of free speech is flouted.

Too late?

For some it will already be too late, the horse has bolted and any action taken by Twitter may now appear a cynical response to something hurting the bottom line.

But this doesn't mean the network shouldn't act.

If no deal is on the table then Twitter has to be its own saviour; direction and discovery are only part of the solution.

A change in strategy to become "the people's news network" may attract extra users but only by creating a fair and safe environment will they be encouraged to sign up and stick around.

It is a shame that only something of this nature may cause Twitter to rethink its approach but past inaction does not have to remain the template for the future.

The wake up call Twitter needs?

Explore and Discover: an evolution five years in the making

After publishing yesterday's post news emerged that Twitter is testing a new "Explore" tab in its apps to replace and build upon Moments and existing means of content discovery.

According to the piece over at Mashable the Explore tab will be a mixture of search, trending topics and Moments harkening back to the Discover tab which preceded Moments.

Now that Jack Dorsey has settled on Twitter's role in the world getting good content in front of people is of paramount importance and it is good to see continued efforts in making this happen.

In fact, the whole strategy depends on it.

Concerns

However, I have two initial concerns over the Explore tab as reported:

  • timing, and
  • presentation

Moments has recently passed its first birthday and the ability to make Moments has just been opened to everyone. In my opinion it's been a revelation and one of the best features Twitter has launched in some time. I hope Explore doesn't detract from what Moments has achieved; it seems a backward step to lessen its presence just as it is becoming a fully fledged feature.

As Explore will be presenting a range of information it will need to be both well structured and useful. The current Moments tab is visually appealing with effective presentation and ease of use.

Combining multiple sources of data in one area means that each has less immediate exposure. The screenshots shared by Mashable (below) do not, in my view, show an overly useful or useable approach.

If handled properly, however, the Explore tab could be a good thing and we could be on the cusp of a new, focused product drive.

It's about time.

What took so long?

I wrote back in 2011 that Twitter should iterate the Discover tab and make it the default view for new users. The Explore tab, if done right, seems like it could such an iteration.

I still maintain that it should be the first thing new users see and, by extension, the new face of the "logged out" homepage.

It's frustrating that I, amongst others, have been writing about this for so long but it is only now that Twitter seems to have caught up.

Take this statement from my post "The changing value of Twitter":

"Everything points towards Twitter placing a much greater emphasis on its identity as a news and media network with the movement away from the main stream as the focal point."

And this one from an even earlier post:

"Could Twitter actually become a place where we consume news first and talk about it after? Is this too radical a shift from the service we all know and love or is it a logical conclusion based on recent events?"

These could have been written any time within the past few months considering Twitter's media partnerships and the new direction. But no, they were written over four years ago but the network appeared to stagnate meaning we are only just seeing this come to fruition.

Identity

Twitter's problem has been that it never knew exactly what it was; there were various ideas and concepts but it seemed to see-saw between strategies.

On his return Dorsey may have been regarded as having the necessary authority that comes from being a founder to right the ship and set the product direction, but you cannot plot a course without having a destination.

Instead, he has defined (maybe we could say admitted or finally accepted) the company identity so that the corporate vision is now in line with public expectation.

Rather than setting any particular product goals this may be his greatest gift to Twitter since his return.

Explore and Discover: an evolution five years in the making

Does Twitter finally know where it is going?

I wrote recently that we could argue Twitter is too culturally important to fail because it is democratising. In fact, I am in favour of any product that levels the playing field:

  • blogs enable anyone to have a voice and publish it on the web
  • Twitter is the same but in 140 character chunks with a much greater chance of being seen as you can @mention people
  • Instagram enables anyone to post pictures of a similar quality as, to a degree, its filters level out the photographer's skill
  • Anchor removes the hassle from podcasting allowing anyone to record and share their spoken thoughts in two minute "waves"
  • Talkshow enables people to have public conversations without unwanted interference from the audience

But things can often be easier and products step into the gaps like Medium has for blogging.

Too difficult?

Twitter has long been criticised for being too difficult for new users to understand but, at its core, nothing could be simpler: anyone can create an account then instantly start sharing 140 character thoughts.

Where Twitter starts to become more complex is with the various conventions that have emerged over time, often at the behest of the user base. Perhaps we only have ourselves to blame for always wanting more features and a more mature experience.

Everyone will agree that its worst problem, however, is discovery and being discovered. Without interaction and acknowledgement tweeting just amounts to shouting into the wind.

And this is often why users leave.

News

At long last Twitter seems to have finally decided what it wants to be when it grows up.

Jack Dorsey's recent memo to staff repeated the "live" and "what's happening" stance we are used to but went one stage further by calling Twitter "the people's news network."

By the people, for the people. Democratising.

While other areas of Twitter's recent performance may have disappointed users, investors and potential acquirers alike, the one thing Dorsey has suddenly achieved since his return a year ago is the creation of the most cohesive narrative the network has ever had. It's just a shame he "spent a good part of the year getting to the truth" when the rest of us reached the same conclusion ages ago.

Dorsey's promise to "deliver a better Twitter faster than they thought possible" (they being Twitter's users) may be viewed with a mixture of skepticism and cynicism given the apparent failure of efforts so far, but without a definitive sense of direction any approach was bound to be scattergun.

Now that Twitter appears to have that direction perhaps it will also have a more defined destination with a clearer idea of how to get there.

Does Twitter finally know where it is going?

Owning your words

A discussion earlier got me thinking about Twitter now allowing people to request verification of their accounts.

I wasn't going to submit an application as there are more well known Colin Walkers out there - from footballer and manager to cellist - but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained and I am verifying that I am me!

Why verify?

Verification was originally intended to stop confusion and to stop people passing themselves off as others. It is a defence mechanism designed to ensure you are talking to or about the right person.

But it has another side to it in that it ensures the person talking is who they say they are.

Twitter's verification guidelines advise that:

If the account belongs to a person, the name reflects the real or stage name of the person.

It is not a real names policy per se but does act as an approximation of identity.

Verify to protect

Jason Calacanis posted a mock message on behalf of Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO in which he sets a scene where verification is open to all - effectively as an identity mechanism - and those not verified would have their tweets blurred out by default, only visible if we chose to view them.

The intention is for everyone to be accountable for what they post and, by virtue of verification, identifiable. If a troll starts posting abuse so what? You can't see it anyway.

Does this go too far? Would it ever really sit well with Twitter's users? How many would quit the service over having their identity held to ransom in this way, being forced to verify their account or have their tweets obscured?

Part of the joy of Twitter is its openness and freedom, the ability to see tweets from complete strangers and to become involved in the conversations of others.

Jason also writes:

"We are going to still allow anonymity on Twitter, because we all know that some voices need to be heard without revealing their identity. From political dissidents to parody accounts, anonymity has a place on the service"

Forgive me if I've missed something, but if unverified accounts were blurred out by default then that "place" becomes a ghetto for second-class Twitter citizens whose voices are actually silenced until we deign to hear them.

Hardly a welcoming act for those users who are potentially the most vulnerable.

Tweet quality

Twitter has launched new ways to control your experience including a quality filter to remove "lower-quality content, like duplicate Tweets or content that appears to be automated" from the feed.

An interesting proposition.

Twitter advises that it uses a number of quality signals such as account origin and behavior. It would be good to know exactly what this involves.

Are individual accounts graded and would this be included in account origin? Would known troll accounts have their visibility downgraded based on their behaviour?

Could the number of blocks or reported tweets a user receives be an account quality signal with those repeatedly penalised being hidden?

It is arguably a better system than a blanket hiding of all tweets by unverified users.

Update

It occurred to me that as an algorithm is in place to automatically decide what tweets should be hidden, could this same algorithm not be used as the basis for further action?

By establishing patterns and consistent behaviour could it not be used to identify potential problem accounts?

Twitter finally has a live tool at its disposal but needs to demonstrate it is fully committed to solving its abuse problem.

Owning your words

Twitter’s big moment

The news that Twitter will open up its Moments feature to all is a real "at last" moment (pardon the pun) for the service.

Until now most users have had to rely on third party offerings like Storify to string a number of tweets together for wider consumption. Twitter, and probably most users, would much rather this behaviour and traffic remain in-house.

The feature is, in my opinion, the best thing that has happened to the network in recent times but I still believe the company can go much further with them.

As I have written before, enabling replies to existing Moments could be a useful way to boost engagement. This would feel more like leaving a comment on a blog post or news item, and these tweets could then be incorporated to provide ongoing, real time reaction.

Twitter is live!

This "read and respond" behaviour should also make Moments a priority for new users to see when they join.

Discovery

In a piece over at Recode Kurt Wagner argues that extending the feature in this way "doesn't help with Twitter's discovery problem" of "finding and surfacing the good Moments" but I can't help feel he's missing the point.

The Moments tab nicely breaks things down into categories like Today, News and Sport but, yes, users actually have to visit the tab. Some do, many don't.

So why is discovery not a problem?

I have long advocated that important/breaking Moments should be included in the feed and this may happen if Twitter's testing is anything to go by. Irrespective of this, anyone can share a tweet to the feed and I feel this is more where Twitter are heading.

Opening the creation of Moments to all is not about everyone finding all Moments right across the network. What it does enable is for a far broader range of topics to be covered. The team at Twitter currently do a brilliant job but, by necessity, can be limited to the big news stories, popular culture and memes.

We generally follow people because we have shared interests. Moments created by users on specific or niche topics will increase usage because they are relevant. This may attract new users or at least convince some others to stay.

After all, Twitter's user problem is not just in attracting new people.

Moments creators will probably be sharing them to the feed (you want people to see your work) meaning they are instantly discoverable to all followers - no visit to the Moments tab required. They will no doubt also be hashtagged providing easy discoverability as long as Twitter includes them in searches; it would be a badly missed opportunity it they didn't.

Following on from this, Moments created should also be added to user profiles alongside pictures and Vines.

Signal v noise

Kurt is right that volume alone won't help discoverability; flooding everyone with irrelevant Moments will merely cheapen the feature. Targeting our interests for greater relevance and providing increased visibility, however, will.

Twitter’s big moment

Energising Twitter lists

(null)

Twitter lists are under-utilised, buried under multiple layers of menu, and some people don't even know they exist. It's hardly surprising as Twitter doesn't seem to like them, reducing their visibility and apparent importance over the years.

Twitter's other client, Tweetdeck, provides good list support but has itself been all but forgotten having not been updated to support new features such as Moments.

I recently contributed to a discussion in which someone suggested they would find it useful having tweets from lists appear in their main stream.

Now, lists are designed to separate our experience into more manageable, more specific chunks enabling us to follow events or interests without needing to explicitly follow those users added to the lists.

Part of the benefit of lists is that our stream is not constantly overtaken by the tweets of those we may only want to see at certain times, but I can see some merit in being able to inject list tweets into our streams during these times enabling us to watch both.

How about a hybrid experience based on the operation of Moments?

Followed lists

Currently, we can follow a Live Moment for its duration and tweets from that Moment are inserted alongside those from the people whose tweets we have chosen to see.

To mirror this behaviour what if we could follow a list for a set period - perhaps an hour by default or for a user definable time - during which tweets from that list would be inserted into our main stream?

Tweets from Moments, that aren't from people we follow, are identified by way of a blue lightning bolt. Similarly, those tweets displayed by virtue of the list could be discerned in a similar way: when inserted into your stream, and not from someone you follow, tweets could have something like a blue list icon.

(null)

Unlikely

Any enhancements to lists would only occur if Twitter decided to, once again, make them a primary feature - unlikely based on current evidence.

Of course, this could change based on user behaviour, but we enter a catch-22 situation. List usage might increase with better visibility and enhancements but those changes would only be considered after an upwards trend in usage.

It's more likely that lists would be scrapped altogether.

Energising Twitter lists

What happens if Twitter dies?

It's a serious question.

I started writing a few notes on this, looking for the right framing when Jack Dorsey said at a Twitter shareholder's meeting that "the world needs Twitter."

Perfect. Thanks Jack.

Despite all the changes that are being announced, and the deal to stream live NFL games, investors aren't confident that the network can turn itself around.

Vine is withering and a snarky post over at Pando.com infers that Twitter's share price only rises when the company cancels features rather than launching new ones. This was re-emphasised when two more executives were announced to be leaving, prompting an internal reorganisation.

The stock has been downgraded by some to a "sell" recommendation. No longer worth the investment.

Too 'x' to fail?

In the wake of the global financial crisis we talked about banks being too big to fail - that going out of business would be too catastrophic for the global economy. Now, we could hardly describe Twitter in the same terms but could we argue that it is too culturally important to fail? Or, maybe, too democratising?

Or will there always be something else come along just as there has in the past? Another service waiting to oust the current incumbent and do everything better.

Historically, some will point to the likes of MySpace and Friendster and how they were replaced by Facebook and Twitter, but they just didn't have the same impact and were at their peak when social media, as we now recognise it, was in its infancy - when design was poor and we did not understand the potential.

As it stands, there is nothing out there (and no sign of anything on the horizon) that could replace Twitter. Numerous micro-blogging services have tried to cash in on its success, all have failed.

It is testament to Twitter's strengths that it is still here ten years later - not bad for a "failure."

Some will look at Facebook's dominance, active user numbers, and ongoing growth as an argument that Twitter is not needed, but this illustrates a lack of understanding about exactly what Twitter is.

Yes, Facebook has a massive potential audience but you only have to look at the most popular live video to understand that it is a completely different platform with a completely different purpose. That a feature with such obvious power is used to turn a woman in a Chewbacca mask into a cultural phenomenon is, in a way, quite disturbing but perfectly demonstrates the differing use cases between networks.

Facebook's reliance on its algorithmic news feed (designed solely to make you stay longer by presenting you with more of the things you want to see) is anathema to the raw, real-time nature of Twitter and could never hope to serve as a replacement should the latter disappear.

Value

The "value" of Twitter is so far removed from the price of its shares but, being a public company, its narrative is now defined by the reaction from Wall Street.

Forget the impact and influence on politics, focus on MAUs. Forget how it brings people closer to what matters in the world, concentrate on the number of ads sold.

Going public may have been seen as the natural move at the time, but the apparent conflict between being almost a utility and being listed on Wall Street now seems more a limitation.

If its stock continues to drop and investors lose patience, what happens to Twitter? It is almost impossible to imagine a world in which the network doesn't exist; at what point is a wholesale change required? It's not as simple as saying "Twitter needs to take itself private" - it can't, someone has to own it which would require a significant investment in a company that doesn't make a profit.

If Twitter dies

Despite its comparatively low user numbers, Twitter occupies an unprecedented position in society. Jack's right, the world does need Twitter, or something else like it, to occupy that space.

Facebook, as it stands, could not act as a viable alternative.

It has oft been mulled that Twitter could be bought by the likes of Google and, more recently, various media organisations but this instantly changes that position; no matter what, a company like Twitter has to maintain independence.

If Twitter dies, the freedom, the rawness, and the democratisation it brings must be maintained - something must fill the void.

What happens if Twitter dies?

This would make a great blog post

Dave Winer will sometimes link to the above image as both a reminder, and perhaps chastisement, that we should own our words and our creations.

But, despite what the terms and conditions on various services say, the practicalities of this are harder than ever.

Social media has increasingly taken the conversation away from blogs and we respond in situ because, if we don't, people are unlikely to follow links to read our response.

Ain't nobody got time for that 1

We suffer from the inherent importance of context in our fast paced, online world.

Thoughts & fragments

We have many thoughts sent out as tweets, Facebook posts, and comments or replies; fragments, quickly captured and just as quickly forgotten, when they should be more deeply explored and exist as complete entities rather than throw-away artefacts.

This was all brought to mind when I saw Tweedium, a tool to combine tweet storms into Medium posts. While many of our tweets etc. are frivolous we must recognise the importance of things we say in the social sphere and that they should have a more prominent, permanent position instead of being washed away in the stream.

Blogging and social need a reboot but this is unlikely to happen as the networks want to retain control even as they advocate openness.

We need enhanced interoperability. We need to be able to write where we want and flag it as a response to something elsewhere, to embed what we have written in situ so that links don't have to be followed.

How do we do it?

There has to be a culture of sharing and embedding social objects: an extended "article" card type in Twitter to display full posts - maybe the AMP version of a page; cross-publishing a blog post to Medium and then retrospectively marking it as a reply to something else, for example.

There are ways it could be achieved if only there is the will.

We may have linking and cross-posting but we need the networks to develop and adopt tools allowing a more flexible migration of data, if not between the different social platforms, at least between platforms and external sites.


  1. To quote the meme 
This would make a great blog post

It’s all about the meta!

The news that Twitter may soon exclude links and images from the 140 character limit has been widely greeted with cries of "it's about time."

Some were, however, equally disappointed when the rumoured increase to 10000 characters was rejected by the board in favour of retaining the existing flow of the stream.

We have been able to embed various media in Tweets even before the launch of Twitter Cards, so why not larger blocks of text?

But it could go further.

Twitter is live, is now, but we cannot solely rely on 140 character snippets and videos. Despite what appears to be in vogue, live video is not the great panacea for online services. Mobile connectivity has improved dramatically over recent years but there are still many dead zones and relatively low monthly data caps that often make live video impractical.

Besides, believe it or not, people still like to read!

Having real time updates on current events is fantastic, especially when they are from eye witnesses, but what we gain in speed we often lose in clarity. Inaccuracies and bias can manifest. It is, therefore, good to have more in depth pieces follow the initial reports which have the important luxury of being fact checked.

News breaks on Twitter so why not also host it after the event?

Facebook has Instant Articles, Google has AMP, surely it would make sense for Twitter to provide for something similar; publishers could embed a news article or blog post directly in a tweet (rather than just a link) so it is native, pre-cached and instantly loaded.

As with Instant Articles, ads could be sold against these articles and the revenue split between publishers and the network. Maybe bloggers could even get in on the action encouraging more to cross post.

Looking at the examples of Facebook and Medium it appears that - at least part of - the route to success is to be both publisher and platform.

Perhaps Twitter should follow their lead.

It’s all about the meta!

Here is the news

Twitter is news

When I first saw that Twitter had changed its App Store classification from social network to news my immediate reaction - no doubt like many others - was that this was an act of desperation. But the more I considered it the more I thought that the change made sense.

First, someone asked on Jelly:

"Why Twitter can't add more users?"

My reply began:

"Non-users just don't understand what it is meant to be/for and Twitter hasn't been able to adequately explain it to them."

Next, Marshall Kirkpatrick tweeted:

"Twitter is news (and social) and you are a news maker (and commentator)"

This triggered a light bulb moment and it all came together with something else I've been suggesting for years: that Twitter users should be presented with news or events and be encouraged to "comment" (tweet) on them just as they would leave a comment on a more traditional news article.

Moments is an ideal vehicle for this.

Not a social network

Twitter has not considered itself a social network for years - Evan Williams described it as an "information network", but, as illustrated by the recent emphasis on live, it is actually a news and current affairs network. We have, after all, been saying that news breaks on Twitter for some considerable time.

Live, real-time, current affairs, news - it all points to an attempt to explain exactly what Twitter is and is for. If Twitter has a user growth problem because people don't understand it, or why they would ever need to use it, then a concerted effort needs to be made to remedy this.

But this cannot be achieved by merely weaving a new narrative, although that is a very important part of the way forward. No, Twitter's story must be backed up with meaningful product changes that reflect that narrative as well as making users realise that they are helping to tell and shape the news.

Change

Ever since Chris Sacca's open letter to Twitter, users (and investors) have been wanting the service made easier to use, to have more widespread appeal, and for the company to have the courage to change. There have been some steps in the right direction, but they have not yet gone far enough - the stalled user growth is evidence this.

Moments, the algorithmic placing of tweets, gifs, having Periscope videos in the feed, they are good ideas and all show potential, yet they are obviously not enough. Moments can be further enhanced by making them more interactive and why can we still not start a Periscope session from directly within the Twitter app?

There are fears that change will alienate the existing core of users. Nonsense! Twitter has already changed significantly and those core users are still here, tweeting like their lives depend on it. Further change does not have to kill the core experience, it can extend it, enhance and supplement it. Moments, for example, is already on its own tab so is free to grow and develop without affecting the main feed.

Denial

Maybe this is it and Twitter doesn't need fixing, maybe it has reached its peak and we are all in denial. Maybe those billion accounts that signed up, cried out in despair and were suddenly silenced show that not enough people are interested in a service such as Twitter.

Maybe changing its App Store category is an act of desperation, a last ditch attempt to sell itself to the masses.

Personally, I'd like to think (hope) that it is a realisation; that the company will have the courage of its convictions and this is the beginning of that new narrative backed by meaningful change.

Here is the news

Panning for gold

Scratch pad

Is Twitter a digital, public scratch pad?

People use journals to unclutter the mind, discard the mental flotsam to free themselves to concentrate on what's important. Yet they get called scratch pads, confused with those places that are supposed to be the birthplace of our plans and schemes.

How many ideas do we throw out on Twitter that could grow into something more if we wrote them down somewhere and mulled them over?

How often do we go back over our tweets to find those sparks and reignite them, fan the flames until we have something deeper?

Don't get me wrong, I love Twitter - over the past 10 years it has been the one network I always come back to. I may have stopped tweeting at times but the raw, real time nature of it always brings me back.

Still, I can't help wondering how it affects me.

Distracted

We offload our thoughts to these outboard memories but never access them again. The stream flows on and the ideas are washed away with the banal, the laments, and the sewage.

Occasionally, someone may scour the stream and find a pearl of our wisdom like a prospector optimistically panning for gold, but when are we ever that prospector sifting through the muck for discarded nuggets in our own stream?

Panning for gold