What went wrong with Twitter?

Twitter was once an incredibly powerful tool for finding and working with other professionals. Nowadays, it's almost nothing but political whining.
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What went wrong with Twitter? I see this morning that we’re all getting 280 characters to tweet with rather than 140. Great. Bound to solve the problem(!)

I used to love Twitter. I used to live on it every day. Every time I took out my mobile and checked it, it was too see what was happening on Twitter. I made friends. I learnt as a professional. I made invaluable business contacts. It was the single greatest professional (and personal) tool I’d ever used. I used to describe it as being at the best professional conference you’d ever been to, whilst simultaneously being down the pub, all day, every day. It was simply a marvellous thing.

Used to.

I hardly use Twitter at all now. These days, I have TweetDeck open on my laptop and from time-to-time I might have a look at what’s on my feed. Then I tend to get upset, or bored, and tune out and go and do something else. Something went wrong a couple a couple of years ago, and the platform is just a shadow of its former self. If you don’t believe me, look at the stock price. For something as important world-changing as Twitter, IPO saw a price of around $40, six months later it was at nearly $70. Then it slid down to $20 about 20 months ago and there it’s been ever since.

The issue with Twitter, fundamentally, was that it should have been an open platform. Like the web, or email, or even Gopher before it, open platforms work by allowing people to develop the technology as they need it to be used. Consider how well AOL (and latterly MSN) worked compared to the open web.

Twitter worked because its presentation of ideas was very short. This allowed a community within Twitter to “try out” new ideas, and receive instant feedback on those ideas. So, someone in a software development community might say, “I’ve found this new Foobar JS library that lets you solve ”. The community would then receive this message, and can chime in with, “Yes, I found it good for ”, or “Careful when using feature because ”. It’s collegiate, and collaborative. That’s aligned nicely with the origins of the web in academia. The web let academia share and discuss ideas more rapidly than printed journals, but was basically a long-form-optimised method. Twitter did the same thing, but for short-form ideas (e.g. advocacy, or “taking temperatures”).

Twitter did deliver value – and for me in my community with my greater colleagues, that value was tremendous, but the problem with that sort of value is that it’s difficult to translate into revenue.

The first mistake Twitter made was to introduce advertising, or rather to introduce advertising without having some sort of subscription opt-out. Advertisements are an interruption to flow. Imagine reading an academic journal, and then finding an advert mid-way through a paragraph. You were concentrating, you’re now distracted. Your flow is ruined, as a result the value of Twitter takes a little knock.

I can live with this though. Monetising through advertising isn’t great, but it’s OK.

The second – and most critical – mistake that Twitter made was to turn it into a populist service. Doing this increased Twitter’s addressable market to “all people”, which if you want an enormous market cap is what you need do to. Amazon is now enormous because their total addressable market is “anyone who buys things” – a substantially larger market than “people who buy books”.

A populist approach requires a business to focus on providing things that everyone wants – or at least everyone in a large community, e.g. “English speaking people in the West”. So, Twitter started to push celebrities, and also news, and along with news comes politics.

The deeper problem with this approach is that it turned Twitter from an online networking event to a news channel. Everything became about broadcasting and consumption, instead of meeting minds and sharing ideas. You know what, I love Taylor Swift, but there is no way she and I are going to become friends on Twitter -- our operational model on that network is she speaks and I listen. Twitter today is essentially just a stream of delivered and amplified information. This is bonkers if you think about where Twitter came from. "Microblogging" was supposed to be about a quick take of ideas, which people could reply to, rather than having long form blogs (like this one) with no obvious way to engage (also like this one -- email me if you want to say "hi"). Now, Twitter isn't a microblogging site at all -- it's a broadcasting platform for pushing out content. It's whole design militates against engagement, and that's a real shame.

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