I love Twitter. I’ve written at length before on why, and these reasons still hold up and are primary to my relationship with the platform. It is the central focus of my digital life and as important a part of keeping me informed and connected as e-mail, in some ways more important, while being far more entertaining, engaging and expansive than e-mail could ever be.
But Twitter is having some issues. The service is not growing and evolving the way some expected it to, the company is again grappling with leadership transitions, trying to attract new users and convincing them to stick around.
The recent round of As The Blue Bird Turns prompted me to reflect on how I engage with Twitter, how it has matured and its relationship with a new group of users that seem to have an experience far different than my own. Twitter has succeeded in becoming mainstream and mass, without question, the uncertainty is in where is goes from here.
I should say up top that I work in media relations, which puts me in the group of individuals (journalists and PR people) most likely to find Twitter indispensable. Many of those I come into contact with through my job love Twitter, use Twitter, don’t know what they would do without Twitter. I include myself in this, happily. I was at an event the other week at which one media luminary called it a “media chat room” and said, “I wake up with Twitter and I go to sleep with Twitter, but I know that’s not normal.” It’s plenty normal here.
In spring of 2009, Twitter co-founder Ev Willams visited the Oprah Winfrey show, did not jump on the couch and said that for Twitter to be successful they just had to get more people using it. Sign up and tell a friend, basically. Oprah joined and sent her first tweet while @ev was sitting right there. Had 100,000 followers by the end of the day and now has more than 24 million.
That appearance led to more mainstream awareness and, over time, many more celebrities and companies joining and using the platform to share content with people. I still shake my head in bemusement when I see a Very Significant News Story that includes a comment some Very Important Person made in a tweet. There is an account in the Pope’s name. As the NYT’s David Carr said, years ago, Twitter is now part of the plumbing, and that is no small thing. But once the pipes are built in a house, they don’t typically extend beyond it.
A few years ago, Twitter started telling people that tweeting was actually a secondary part of the experience. “You don’t have to tweet to be on Twitter,” the line went, and apparently today a high percentage of users never actually contribute to the communal experience by saying anything. There is no question that the explosion of notables, media outlets, brands and other interesting entities has made Twitter an engaging and valuable place to be, whether or not you decide to tell anyone about the sandwich you are eating or the story you are reading. But that’s not what the founders intended and the Twittering-Without-Tweeting dynamic connects users only to their timeline, not really to each other. When co-founder Jack Dorsey said he was “inviting coworkers” in one of the first tweets ever sent, he didn’t just mean so they could listen to other people, he meant so they could communicate with each other. It is called social media for a reason, after all.
Both the mobile and Web versions of Twitter feature a “Notifications” tab – a little indication that someone out there in the wilds of the Twitterverse has engaged with you in some way. Started following you, interacted with something you said or offered the Holy Grail of Twitter affirmation, the retweet. These are big moments on Twitter, indications of human contact and recognition. I wonder what it would be like to use the service for months on end and never see that little tab light up – bound to Twitter by nothing but the ability to overhear other people saying things. Maybe Twitter should forgo (or at least supplement) the LinkedIn-style update e-mails it has been sending of late and give users some on-platform love by lighting up the notifications tab every once in a while with a message to make people feel included and special.
If the connective tissue of Twitter is information and what other people are saying, even other people or entities you have indicated you care about, by definition that can’t be as strong as people linked to others through interaction and a combination of incoming and outgoing expression. I never got on the Facebook bus, but from what I understand the underlying (and inescapable) benefit is a connection to people you care about in your life – staying current with family members, friends and colleagues, sharing photos and general updates on where you are and what you are doing. And there is an exchange implied in the value proposition.
So, if Twitter wants to grow from here, it seems clear that it needs to focus on the things that bring its users together. I never understood the company’s failure to recognize the potential of Direct Messages (DMs) as a very powerful communications tool that had the ability to supplant e-mails and texts. They seem to be coming around on this, recently adding the ability to attach private photos to these missives, and maybe it’s not too late, in any event it seems a powerful part of the platform that should be explored and exploited. If 140 characters is sacrosanct for tweets, maybe DMs should be able to stretch beyond this limit. Maybe the default should be that users can DM anyone, until someone decides to selectively block that connection.
Twitter already has me, and people like me. It offers information, engagement and expression – an incredibly powerful and lasting combination, with immediacy that can’t be found in the same way anywhere else. The media-centric crowd will never leave and will be the ones left to turn out the lights if it ever comes to that. The trick to growth seems to be finding a way to appeal to the accountant for a car dealership in the Midwest. If his or her friends, family and co-workers aren’t using Twitter, if there’s no desire to interact with anyone on the platform and the sum total of the Twitter timeline is quasi-authenticity and quasi-ads from high-profile individuals who in many cases have been compelled to join for promotional purposes - and information generally available elsewhere - then I do wonder about its appeal and staying power with new converts. With the exception of super-fans and power-users, it does seem that Twitter needs to be more than the digital equivalent of a magazine full of pretty pictures and personalities to become sticky and central to people’s lives.
Or, maybe, it doesn’t need to grow in this way. Maybe Twitter can be the social media equivalent of Mad Men, an extraordinary and uniquely distinctive experience that reaches and resonates with a user base of plugged-in influencers advertisers and brands covet, a place where people who are very hard to reach, and who largely drive conversation and culture, happen to live. Facebook can be The Walking Dead, the #1 show on television, something for everyone, mass, and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo can get comfortable in Don Draper’s suit.
When Ev Williams went on the Oprah show five years ago, all Twitter had to do to grow and succeed was to get people to use it. Today, it seems like a certain kind of succeeding can be possible just by continuing to make the service great for its current users. But the kind of growth some are clamoring for will come by finding new ways to let those users, and millions more, connect not only with whatever is currently being talked about in the Global Town Square, but with each other.