Narrative: Twitter is Stuck
Each narrative page (like this) has a page describing and evaluating the narrative, followed by all the posts on the site tagged with that narrative. Scroll down beyond the introduction to see the posts.
Narrative: Twitter is Stuck (Dec 27, 2016)
Updated: January 28, 2017
Jack Dorsey is running two companies at once, but also seems determined to own product at Twitter, creating a paradox where he doesn’t have the time needed to fix product, but also squeezes out others who could help, hence the recent exodus of executives. I continue to believe that Twitter won’t grow its user base meaningfully unless it can let go of its obsession with account-based following and move towards something more user friendly based on topics. The on boarding process is too complex and leaves users with very little sense of how compelling Twitter can be when it’s working well, and so Twitter has an enormously high abandonment rate for new users.
2017 will be a pivotal year in Twitter’s history – Jack Dorsey came in as CEO with promises to fix a number of key issues, but has since shifted his focus almost entirely to live video. This leaves the new user experience, Twitter’s abuse problem, complex syntax, and a host of other user-facing issues unsolved, while also leaving Twitter’s advertiser and analytics shortcomings unresolved. The live video bet is a big one, but it’s unclear at this point whether it will pay off in terms of either increased ad revenue (given that much of the content comes with ads served by others) or better user engagement. Jack Dorsey arguably has this year to prove that his vision for the company is the right one, and that it can deliver growth in users or at least meaningful revenue growth and progress towards profitability. If it doesn’t, I suspect Dorsey won’t last the year.
Following the Rose McGowan account suspension I mentioned in an item yesterday, a number of prominent women on Twitter have organized a boycott of the platform which is taking place today (Friday). I’m linking below to an item from USA Today which covered the boycott as it being organized, but the challenge today is knowing how effective the boycott has been, because by definition it’s about silence rather than speaking out. Other women, meanwhile, have chosen to speak out about the issues today instead, which makes for a more immediately visible form of protest (Update: this New York Times piece summarizes the different views being expressed on this question). One would hope that these protests, whatever their form, would prompt Twitter to look more seriously at the serious issues being debated, but its lack of past progress on this issue makes me skeptical that that will happen.
via USA Today
Twitter has once again starkly illustrated its inconsistency in policing abuse, by temporarily suspending the account of actress Rose McGowan over an alleged breach of its rules, while continuing to allow much more egregious abuses to go unchecked. In this case, Twitter claims that McGowan included someone’s personal phone number in one of her tweets, and that it reinstated her account once she deleted the offending tweet, but as usual there was a lack of transparency on Twitter’s part until there was a media outcry, which has been the repeated pattern. The great irony was that McGowan was speaking up about her own and others’ abuse at the hands of Harvey Weinstein and others, while many women who are abused on Twitter’s platform itself find their reports of abuse ignored or dismissed. Twitter desperately needs to both improve its consistency in policing actual abuse on its platform and to communicate more openly about how it enforces the rules, because this situation just continues to get worse.
Twitter Announces It’s Working on a Bookmarking Tool (Oct 10, 2017)
Several Twitter employees tweeted on Monday evening about a new feature the company is working on, which would allow users to bookmark tweets. This is a fix for the ambiguity of what started out as the “favorite” feature (denoted by a star) but morphed into a “like” feature symbolized by a heart – while some users have undoubtedly used it for bookmarking, it connotes approval of the tweet as well, which can send the wrong signals. Why Twitter feels the need to test this feature, which seems to work perfectly fine in the screenshots the employees shared, is beyond me – it feels like Twitter could have just pushed this feature out without testing it broadly, especially because it doesn’t break anything connected to the way Twitter works today and merely adds value. That’s indicative of the slow speed with which Twitter has fixed basic issues with the service over the last several years. More importantly, though, as with the recent change to the character limit (also still in testing), it still feels like Twitter is tinkering around the edges rather than fundamentally changing the experience in ways that would make it more accessible, especially to new or casual users.
Update: later in the day, Twitter also announced another feature, also covered by BuzzFeed here. This one feels much better aligned with what Twitter really needs to be working on in terms of making the site more usable for those who haven’t spent ages curating feeds, and it appears to be built on work the company previously did for its live video events. However, it’s still event-based and therefore somewhat limited – it doesn’t, for example, allow people to follow topics of ongoing interest.
Twitter has just made the surprise announcement that it’s testing expanding the 140-character limit that’s characterized the service from its inception to 280 characters in all languages except Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, which make far more efficient use of characters. Various people have suggested expanding the Twitter limit over time as a way to make the service more useful and less frustrating, but the 140-character limit has been a defining feature, forcing brevity and making streams of tweets very easy to consume. Even just looking at the first few 280-character tweets I’ve seen from Twitter executives has broken up my feed and forced a mental shift in my consumption. There’s something magical about the 140 character limit which makes the vast majority of tweets inherently glanceable in a way a 280 character tweet never will be. I continue to maintain that expanding the character limit and other superficial changes are peripheral to the real changes Twitter needs to make to go more mainstream – those changes instead need to revolve around getting beyond the account-by-account following model. This is a bold step for Twitter (albeit one still in testing) but it feels like it misses the mark in terms of making Twitter more useful. I’d argue that if removing constraints was the focus, Twitter should have found a way to attach longer blocks of text to tweets natively instead – that would have replaced the many screenshots of text people post, which aren’t searchable or readable by accessibility software, without breaking the fundamental model. Personally, I’m not a fan, but more importantly, I’m skeptical this will actually improve the Twitter experience in ways which lead to more usage and most importantly more users, which continues to be one of Twitter’s biggest challenges.
Twitter Sells Enough Ads to Launch All Planned Live TV Shows (Sep 25, 2017)
It certainly wasn’t clear at the time Twitter made its big blitz of announcements around its live TV plans that some of the shows weren’t guaranteed to air if they didn’t get sufficient ad backing, but now that they have that backing, Twitter is apparently trumpeting that fact. Since many of the shows Twitter is hosting are existing properties which will come with ads from the original sources, Twitter likely didn’t have to sell that many ad slots itself in many cases. There certainly are some unique-to-Twitter shows, so it’s impressive that it’s sold enough ads on those too, but in many cases I’m guessing that spend is experimental – no-one really knows what kind of audiences most of these shows will attract, and the level of spending involved is likely small enough to fit into niche budgets (as Snapchat long did). The big question is whether, following the first few months of this experiment, those advertisers want to re-up and commit to additional shows and seasons. That will depend largely on a combination of viewership and engagement with the ads viewers see. We don’t have many figures for individual Twitter shows to go by, but we do know that just 55 million or 17% of monthly active users spent any time watching any live video on Twitter in Q2 of this year, so Twitter and its advertisers are clearly hoping that that translates into more committed audiences for specific shows in order to justify continued investment.
Twitter is Testing a Native Lite App in the Philippines (Sep 25, 2017)
Twitter launched Twitter Lite as a progressive web app in April with a view to providing a better option for emerging markets users relative to its native app. In writing about that news, I said that Twitter’s PWA was nice validation for Google’s push of these web apps, but that validation takes a bit of a knock from the fact that Twitter is reportedly testing a native app version of Twitter Lite in the Philippines. There’s no guarantee it gets launched broadly, but it would be further evidence that, for all Google’s eagerness to promote web apps alongside (or even instead of) native apps, the latter still dominate usage and the channels major companies still use to make their services available. I also said in that original piece that Twitter could benefit from the same kinds of benefits as Facebook by pursuing a Lite strategy, but although a Twitter product exec said a while back that Lite was driving big growth in India, the company’s Q2 results showed basically no evidence of that growth. One of Twitter’s biggest problems globally continues to be its inability to create a value proposition that appeals to new users, and whereas Facebook’s Lite app accelerated what was already very strong growth, Twitter’s app can’t solve that fundamental issue.
Twitter has published its latest Transparency Report, which covers the first half of 2017 and mostly relates to requests for intervention in content posted on Twitter by government entities. Amongst the other data in there, though, Twitter has also reported specific numbers on the accounts removed from the service over promotion of terrorism, a total that has reached over 900,000 accounts since August 2015. Importantly, the vast majority of those accounts were taken down not because of any report by a government agency but because Twitter’s own in-house tools flagged the accounts, often before they even began tweeting. That represents good progress over the last couple of years in this particular area, but Twitter remains poor in policing abuse in general on its site, as several reports from BuzzFeed and other news outlets have shown. In relation to that issue, it’s notable that “abusive behavior” is the category of government-reported content with by far the lowest action rate from Twitter of all those it reports at just 12% of reports acted on, versus 40% for copyright issues, 63% for trademark infringement, and 92% for promotion of terrorism. That may in part be because government representatives often have thin skins and those opposing them may be considered by Twitter to be in need of special free speech protections, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that 12% was representative of the proportion of overall abuse reports that get acted on by Twitter.
Twitter Hires Sriram Krishnan as Senior Director of Product (Sep 19, 2017)
Sriram Krishnan, who has served as an ad exec at Facebook and Snapchat, is to join twitter as Senior Director Product in October. Product roles at Twitter have been notoriously hard to fill (and keep filled) with many executives filing in and out of those jobs, but Twitter has had a little more stability there lately and has more of a structure around the organization at this point too. Krishnan won’t run product overall but will be a couple of tiers down in the organization, working under Kevin Coleman, who in turns reports to Ed Ho, who reports to Jack Dorsey. He seems to be widely admired in the industry, and his hiring is being seen as something of a coup for Twitter and a sign that it’s still able to attract top talent despite its growth struggles. It certainly needs help on the product side, and hopefully Krishnan will bring a new perspective and a greater willingness to take bold steps instead of merely tinkering around the edges as Twitter has done for the past several years.
Update: also in Twitter executive news today, it’s hired former Google CFO Patrick Pichette as a board member, and he’ll start in December. As with a number of past Twitter board hires, he’s basically never tweeted, something Twitter seems to be OK with (and I’d argue that’s OK in a role like this, that is likely more about financial oversight than product insight).
Twitter Finally Adds Curation by Topic, But It’s Flawed (Aug 16, 2017)
Twitter has finally added curation by topic, but only as part of its Explore tab, and the implementation seems to be pretty flawed. I argued that Twitter needed to get beyond its account-centric model to enable further growth in a piece written a year ago this week, so I welcome the move in principle. But the topic-based feeds are buried behind the search button, and the actual content in the various feeds feels unfocused and often irrelevant. More to the point, this topic-based approach needs to be part of the on boarding experience for Twitter, which has remained far too account-centric and therefore overwhelming for new users, something I documented here a few months back. So this is a step in the right direction, but needs to go further.