How Twitter can be fixed

Chris Sacca, an investor who predicted Twitter‘s success ahead of everyone has penned some thoughts. If you are really interested, it is worth the read but he helpfully provides a summary.

Twitter simply needs to:

  1. Make Tweets effortless to enjoy,
  2. Make it easier for all to participate, and
  3. Make each of us on Twitter feel heard and valuable.

Done right, and done soon, hundreds of millions of new users will join and stay active on the service, hundreds of millions of inactive users will return to the service, and hundreds millions more will use Twitter from the outside. Countless users, new and old, will find Twitter indispensable, use Twitter more, see great ads, buy lots of stuff, and make the company much more money along the way.

Sacca provides plenty of suggestions but, in reality, I think he misses the boat. All of his suggestions are specific — as if one person could work out what to do. By contrast, I believe that no one really understands Twitter and that is the foundation for any analysis of it.

app_iconAs it happens, I just finished the interesting book, Hatching Twitter. The one thing that you can say about it: it was no meticulously planned start-up executing perfectly the vision of its founder or founding team. Instead, it’s founding team was, well, a mess, and somehow groped towards the decisions that have led to the Twitter as we know it today.

Critically, the book highlights that there was continual dispute as to what Twitter was for. Was it for telling the world what you were doing or telling the world what is happening around you? They didn’t know and, in fact, it is at least a bit of both. And it is also more.

So Sacca is correct that most people when they encounter Twitter don’t know what to do with it. I have been constantly asked by colleagues who have signed up, how to use it. I don’t have a good answer for that. I know how I use it. I have it sitting on a separate screen constantly all day and I scroll through 1000s of tweets a day and occasionally post my own. I learn stuff but it is a mess. And if I miss some hours, it is work to catch up. And even then I am not sure why I am doing it. The best I can tell you is that it keeps me company as I do the mostly solo work of my day.

Twitter is currently different things for different people. But the person who got closest to nailing something important about it was Paul Graham. Here is what he wrote (all of it), in 2009 and I think it is 100% right.

Om Malik is the most recent of many people to ask why Twitter is such a big deal.

The reason is that it’s a new messaging protocol, where you don’t specify the recipients. New protocols are rare. Or more precisely, new protocols that take off are. There are only a handful of commonly used ones: TCP/IP (the Internet), SMTP (email), HTTP (the web), and so on. So any new protocol is a big deal. But Twitter is a protocol owned by a private company. That’s even rarer.

Curiously, the fact that the founders of Twitter have been slow to monetize it may in the long run prove to be an advantage. Because they haven’t tried to control it too much, Twitter feels to everyone like previous protocols. One forgets it’s owned by a private company. That must have made it easier for Twitter to spread.

It is a new communications protocol. They happen and they have been significant in the development of the Internet.

But herein lies the problem. New communications protocols work best when they are open. People will use them for communication but no single company can work out what for. What Twitter has moved to do by closing its API somewhat but also threatening developers with hold-up (see here) is kill any sort of real innovation ecosystem around that communication function.

Sacca has some ideas but for everyone he has seeded that he thinks is good is argument is that Twitter should buy the company with that idea and integrate it into the platform. But if Twitter were a true open platform that encouraged innovation, that notion would not be necessary.

There are people who could surely make Twitter better in all of the ways Sacca suggests and more. But they have limited incentives to try because of the tight reign Twitter, the corporation, holds on access.

There is a simple way to fix Twitter. Open it up!

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