The microblogging service Twitter has been in the news a lot lately. Last week Buzzfeed reported that Twitter was instituting an algorithmic timeline, where tweets would be displayed according to what an algorithm determines people want to see. This threw Twitter into a frenzy, with the hashtag #RIPTwitter trending. All of this turned out to be a tempest in a teapot, as Twitter revealed that the new algorithmic timeline would include multiple opt-out options.
This week Twitter was in the news again. This time around it was because according to the service's latest quarterly report its growth has stalled. Twitter's users totalled 320 million in its fourth quarter, the same as in its third quarter. This resulted in Twitter's stock declining on Wall Street. There were even a very few stories that even questioned the possibility of Twitter's survival, such as this one at Investor Place and this one at the New Zealand Herald.
My own thought is that it is too soon to write Twitter's eulogy yet. Let's face it. While 320 million users is nowhere close to the 1.59 billion that Facebook has, it is still nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is still the most used social media site after Facebook. That puts it ahead of Google+, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. Now I have to admit that its growth having stalled is disturbing and is probably a sign that the service is in trouble, but I don't think it is something that cannot be reversed. Here then are the ways I think Twitter can save itself.
1. Don't Try to Be Facebook: A common complaint that Twitter users have had about the service is that it is trying to be too much to be like Facebook. This complaint was made about the new profile design introduced in the spring of 2014. It is a complaint that was made when news about the algorithmic timeline broke. The fact is that most Twitter users don't want Twitter to be like Facebook. What is more, many Twitter users don't even like Facebook. Quite simply, Twitter and Facebook are two very different services. Facebook is a social network where one can connect with friends and family. Twitter is a microblogging service where one goes to learn news, chat, or express his or her feelings. In other words, Facebook is where you go to see pictures of your sister's new baby. Twitter is where you go to find out news about last night's Democratic debate. Given the difference between the two services, there is no reason Twitter should try to be like Facebook.
2. Accept That Twitter Has Always Been Fairly Easy To Use: A concern often expressed by Twitter's current leadership is that the service is too hard to use or understand. I have no idea how they convinced themselves of this, as it is far easier to use or understand than Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, or just about any other social media site. There is nothing simpler to understand than Twitter's timeline, which is in reverse, chronological order. Similarly, there's nothing complex about tweeting, save that it has to be 140 characters or less. Twitter has been very easy to use for most of its history and any changes that have been made have actually made it harder to use.
3. Remove "While You Were Away" and "Who to Follow" from the Timeline: Speaking of things that make Twitter harder to use, "While You Were Away" and "Who to Follow" are two of them. Both disrupt the timeline, making it harder to see tweets in reverse chronological order. In the name of keeping things simple, Twitter should do away with "While You Were Away" entirely or at least give users a means of turning it off. As to "Who to Follow", they should move it to the right sidebar where it once was, give people a way to turn it off, or, preferably, both.
4. Give Retweets, Mentions, and Follows Each Their Own Tabs: When I first started using Twitter there were separate tabs for retweets, mentions, and follows. Unfortunately Twitter merged the three into a single tab several years ago. I really did not appreciate this and it is the primary reason I use HootSuite rather than the Twitter interface. Having retweets, mentions and follows all under the same tab makes it very hard to keep track of things. It is all too easy to miss a mention or retweet. If they truly want to make Twitter easier to use, then they should restore them to their own tabs.
5. Keep the Timeline in Reverse, Chronological Timeline as Twitter's Default: Giving Twitter users the option of a algorithmic timeline is all very fine and well, but Twitter should never do away with the reverse, chronological timeline. It has always been Twitter's strength and the reason Twitter has become so popular with news outlets and users. Indeed, in my experience most users do not like algorithmic timelines. Consider every single time Facebook has tried to do away with its Most Recent feed. There have been howls of protest to the point that Facebook has had to restore it. What is more, a frequent complaint about Facebook is that users can't keep their news feeds set to Most Recent and have it stay that way. One has to wonder if a lot of users would not just as soon Facebook do away with their algorithmic "Top Stories" feed all together! I rather suspect that Twitter might find many of its users will not opt in to the new algorithmic timeline. In fact, I suspect the majority of them won't. Given that people seem to dislike algorithmic feeds, they should probably keep their emphasis on the classic, reverse chronological timeline.
Ultimately I think that for Twitter to survive it has to emphasise simplicity. Twitter was simple to use in 2009. Since then it has grown more complex with several unnecessary changes. I think if Twitter returned to the simplicity it had in 2010, then it could easily survive and even thrive. If it doesn't and if Twitter continues to make changes, then forecasts about its demise might become all too true.
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