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.


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Newspapers suffer because they are out of date before they have even been printed. TV news superseded them by being able to provide more current coverage broadcast straight to people's homes but the web takes it one step further by doing away with the need for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.