Twitter is not for everyone

Twitter is an intriguing paradox. It’s not doing well from a business perspective, many have mocked the platform, but the (media) world would be very different without it.

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter. His absence from the recent Trump tech meeting made the news — even though his platform helped the President-elect reinvent political campaigns and get where he is.

The numbers are far from shiny:

At the same time, if it disappeared right now, its absence would be felt strongly by many. Can you imagine the latest US presidential election without Twitter? No. It is a unique platform to connect leaders and insiders in many fields with each other, while also allowing for smart but busy people to share their insights and opinions easily.

Now what about the rest of us mere mortals? I personally use Twitter a lot and spent a lot of time refining the list of people I follow. If you invest a lot of time and energy, then you might find value in Twitter, but why does it have to take so long? All this makes me think that the power users, such as journalists and analysts, should act as filters. As they spend a lot of time on the platform (as they should), they are able to filter information, extract value and broadcast it to a larger audience. And Twitter should do everything it can to help power users with the whole process.

The beauty of Twitter is the ability for leaders of any field to share with an audience and more interestingly, interact in real-time with each other. There are so many examples of this, including country leaders, artists and CEOs engaging in a unique form with the rest of the world. One recent example was this conversation started by Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, gathering massive feedback to improve his company’s product:

This is very unique; as the hashtag goes, #OnlyOnTwitter. No other platform has enabled A-list people and insiders to share and interact so easily. Reddit has been doing AMAs for a long time, but on Twitter you don’t even need to ask for anything: they just take the mic.

If you are Twitter, you already know you have this unique gem in your hands, and you should focus all your attention on improving user experience by removing constraints, which are plenty. Indeed, valuable pieces of content can be drowned into a sea of risky or unproductive tweets, and Twitter should overcome these challenges:

  • Fake news: because it’s easy to propagate a tweet without vetting the content first, fake news spread like fire.
  • Bullies and trolls: as anyone can join a debate, the discussion can turn sour very quickly, resulting in a plethora of short messages inept in debating complex issues.
  • Overflow of information and opinions, shared too early (i.e. without proper vetting) or too often.

One might argue that Twitter’s uniqueness wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a large audience for world leaders to share with. Yes, a critical mass is needed — but not hundreds of millions of users, contrary to what the company is aiming for. Its motto, “It’s what’s happening”, invites users to consume real-time information on what’s happening in the present, information that might become irrelevant shortly after. Its mission is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers”: is that solving a problem for the masses? Thanks to the Internet, we have access to real-time information already (news no longer needs to be printed, and the Internet enables a plurality of opinions), do we need super real-time, unfiltered information? Do we want anyone to be able to attack us in public? Do we all have valuable opinions/news to share with the rest of the world?

No. Only qualified users really need Twitter (and Twitter really needs them):

  • Leaders from all fields use the platform to share easily and interact with each other. This includes a wide range of people, from country leaders to industry analysts, personalities from the society and artists.
  • News organizations, journalists keep their finger on the pulse and report on trends and conversations between users, curating with diligence. “Twitter is the first draft of journalism”, as Randall Stross says in the New York Times (October 2016).

I often think of a parallel between Twitter and the Bloomberg Terminal: lots of unfiltered, high-frequency and real-time information thrown at users on multiple screens, most of it is very short-lived and doesn’t carry any value in the mid/long-term. You don’t need a degree to start using the terminal, but experience: all the content must be digested, the signal extracted from the noise, to be able to form an opinion and insights on market trends (Bloomberg might be the first draft of financial journalism/analysis). On both platforms, actions can have a wide impact (funny to see that tweets from Donald Trump, just like a transaction, can make a company’s stock tank), and insightful conversations happen on the platform, through Bloomberg’ messaging features.

The Newsroom, episode 1 of the third season: financial news anchor Sloan Sabbith receives her Bloomberg Terminal.

What Twitter should do:

  • Go private: the quarterly pressure to generate advertising revenue is not productive because it’s a race for more users and more impressions to sell to brands, which means the quality of the content is not always priority number #1.
  • Curate content. In that same article in the New York Times, Stross suggests Larry Page buys Twitter, and leverages Google’s technology to filter spam/illicit content (Google’s search engine is a master at that). Algorithms and/or people can help with curation, to be able to filter but also to create an environment of plurality.
  • Become selectively open? Underlying question: should anyone be able to tweet? With a wider definition of verified users, Twitter could create a class of content creators, and another class of users able to RT, like and also react/comment with verified information. And have some control over who one can reply to. And the company should have an ongoing process to identify new voices with valuable information, like leaders of new political movements (Occupy Wall Street, the Umbrella Revolution…). No need to be an expert or a professional: if you have something valuable to say and it resonates within the platform, then you should be able to debate with others.
  • help A-list users and influencers make the most out of the platform. Though it is easy to find other platforms that help celebrities engage with their fans, Twitter is unique in fostering insightful discussion and analysis by sometimes low-key insiders.

Twitter must turn into the primary platform for reliable news and insights, just like Bloomberg owns reliable financial information. This may imply that the company needs to act like infrastructure, with 100% reliability, keeping in mind the impact of news on society. Real-time information must not come at the expense of accuracy and balance. And not to mention improving the platform and the experience could result in a better business. (Further reading on this, Ben Thompson’s excellent piece on why Twitter must be saved, in Stratechery.)

Thanks to Sania Khan and Raphael Korach for reading drafts of this.