I have been using Twitter for a better part of a decade. I have taken somewhat public breaks from it, but for better or worse, it’s become a big part of my life. I’ve met people through it, found jobs and clients through it (though suspiciously never paid for either of it). It’s where I go to ramble, and where I go for cheap laughs, depressing news, and dank memes.
What’s really remarkable about Twitter is how little it has changed over the years. They have added a (rounded) corner here and there, changed likes to hearts, maybe added a feature or two. But the core Twitter experience, a timeline, has been the same. I used to think it’s a good thing, but now I am not so sure.
The biggest value Twitter for me is the wide variety of content I get through it. More specifically, it’s stuff that I read; be it news or essays or anything in between. On average, I read at least 2-3 items from it, but many days when things are slow, it’s way more than that. And I am sure that I am not alone. I might enjoy reading the news more than most, but I don’t think I’m too far off the average.
But then how I read stuff via Twitter has not changed at all in the last 10 years or so. My workflow as far as I can remember has been the same; I click on a link that seems interesting, open it on Safari (since I use Tweetbot), add to my Reading List if I want to read it later. When I actually have time to read it, I generally use the Reading Mode on Safari again, and if it seems interesting, I also bookmark it via Pinboard, so I have an archived and lagged copy. I also check Nuzzel and maybe Reddit once a day or so to see what stuff I might have missed from my feed.
There are multiple steps here that Twitter could build a major product on, easily. But nothing has happened, which I find suspicious and disappointing. Twitter built a user-friendly product over RSS feeds, which were always geeky for mass consumption, but nothing else came after it.
Start with finding the content. Twitter makes it impossible to de-duplicate the same content that’s shared by multiple people. In fact, this is something I found so annoying that Digg did well back in the day, that I ended up building something myself, only to realize Nuzzel already exists. It’s a major product, with both consumer and enterprise features, built largely on Twitter’s back. And of course, there’s the venerable Techmeme, doing the same thing with a bit more human oversight.
Move on to consuming content. Every time I click on a link from Twitter, especially on mobile where content blocking is still not as good, I have to hope that my music doesn’t stop and my text doesn’t get blocked by ads. And that’s assuming things actually load, which seems like a hit-or-miss these days. This was, and is, such a horrible problem with many root causes but it was enough to sprout multiple technologies to help solve it.
AMP was Google’s way to making sure mobile content loads (from Google’s servers, with Google’s ads, for the most part) and Instant Articles is how Facebook attacked a similar problem. And of course, multiple companies like Instapaper and ReadItLater aka Pocket started out as essentially glorified content-blockers. Today, Pocket is installed by default on millions of Firefox users.
And then of course, bookmarking and archiving. This is probably the most niche of the uses cases, but still, a profitable one that adds value for not just consumers but enterprises. Pinboard is the dark horse in this race, but needless to say, it’s a valuable enough service tens of thousands, if not millions of people pay for it.
And these are just the basics. There are many products and companies. One of my other favorite services, Blendle, makes micropayments actually painless while helping journalists. Some of the services I mentioned allow integration with your subscriptions to publishers such as Wall Street Journal and Financial Times so that your experience is seamless. Facebook and Google both announced programs to help publishers gain actual paying subscribers when they reach their content through their platforms.
It’s always tricky to point fingers at a tech company from outside and tell them they aren’t doing enough to compete. Technology is tricky, and I have been behind the curtains to know that it takes a village to make a product work at scale. Scaling technology is one thing, but when you are dealing with hundreds of millions of users, with billions of pieces of content, across the globe, the organizational challenges are enough to blow most people’s heads multiples times over.
But, but, but, it’s hard not to feel like Twitter hasn’t iterated on this fast enough, if at all. Facebook, reportedly, partly got in the (not-fake) news game because they were worried about the publisher’s and media personality’s obsession with Twitter. And, obviously, that hasn’t turned out great for everyone, certainly not for the capital-w Western liberal order. And yes, not every experiment has worked out either; Instant Articles seems like going out the way of dodo and AMP, while hugely popular, is quite contentious, especially among web developers.
But then, lots of other companies seem to be doing OK. Flipboard just announced their engagement is double year over year, and are of course courting publishers. Facebook is taking a huge, somewhat deserved, beating from the entire media but they still will be a major traffic and possibly audience source for big and small publishers.
I know that some ideas that work as niche products might not scale to millions of users. Publishers would be up in arms if Twitter tomorrow rolled out a reader that stripped off ads and tracking codes. On the other side, with the growing privacy concerns, not every user would be happy share all their reading habits, especially off Twitter, with Jack and Co.
But having an idea and testing it out doesn’t mean rolling it out globally, in one go. You have to identify your stakeholders, be it users or providers, and see what you can do for them. Ideally, it works for both. But maybe, you can start with making yourself useful to at least one side.
I love Twitter (minus the fucking Nazis). I believe it’s closer to what an open web should be than the oddly tamed and sterile blue-tinged world of Facebook. It’s a place where millions of people come every day to have fun, be part of a global conversation. Its one-sided follow system, is so simple, and while its discovery tools leave a lot to be desired, they are good enough to expose you to interesting things and have a dash of serendipity missing from many other places.
I just think Twitter has been sitting on their hands when it comes to helping people find content to read, make it easier to consume, and provide value to the publishers who create that content. The web still doesn’t have A Place To Find and Read things. The first act was online portals, and then came RSS. Twitter could position itself to be that place.