Fixing Twitter

Tech analyst Startup L. Jackson believes that Twitter’s Product is Fucking Fine and that the company’s next CEO needs to simply give the current team some room to get stuff done. No. I think Twitter badly needs to do at least five things to address imminent existential threats–things which its current team has tried and spectacularly failed to accomplish. Investor/cowboy Chris Sacca recently wrote about What Twitter Can Be; below I outline what I think Twitter should have been yesterday–and how its team has proven an inability to address or even identify these threats over the past three years.

First, for normal users, Twitter feels too much like a one-way broadcast system. It needs to feel more like a community, with meaningful two-way interaction. Right now, a reply to Justin Bieber by a 16-year-old fangirl goes into the ether, never to be seen again. There is zero incentive in the product to interact with celebrities on Twitter, because no one will see the responses. Instagram at least gives the illusion that other people will see interactions, and its UI even feels like a realtime chat room. Twitter responses are difficult to read on the website–with that weird accordion expansion UI that only shows 5 responses and makes it impossible to follow a coherent conversation. It is insane that Twitter has not improved the reply/conversations system.

Second–and this one is obvious to almost everyone–Twitter needs to focus on realtime events. When I open Twitter during a major debate in the US, or when a bomb has exploded in Bangkok, there should be a huge fucking banner at the top that says “follow this breaking event.” It shouldn’t just search for a hashtag–it should use intelligent algorithms to show me all of the relevant content about that event. It should be the place you go to learn about what is happening in the world right now. When something major happens in the world/your country/your city, you should be trained to immediately and automatically think, “open Twitter to get updates.” This is so obvious to me that I wonder what Twitter’s product team has been doing—are they over-designing a solution to this? It’s so simple. 90% of the UI and 80% of the search functionality is already in the app.

Third, Twitter has fucked up multimedia integration. Why the hell does adding a photo or video use up some of the 140 characters I want to use for my description? Why does it crop my photo? Why does it not show full-width images in the feed? The answer to these questions are easy to dismiss by anyone who has been using Twitter for eight years, but it makes no sense to the 16-year-old Belieber, who will inevitably get frustrated and use Instagram instead. Twitter is competing directly with photo sharing apps like Snapchat and Instagram, and it is clearly worse than both of those platforms for normal people to share anything. It doesn’t let me easily direct things to certain people and it doesn’t let me write meaningful descriptions. Worst of all, and most perplexing, photos and videos still don’t feel native to the platform. They feel like afterthoughts–which they are–bolted on to a text platform. Twitter needs to step back and think, “What would Twitter feel like if it wasn’t originally based on text?”

Fourth, let’s talk about third party payloads/integrations on Twitter. They have never felt native, and they are still–after three years–in a bizarrely dire state. When I add a link to a YouTube video, Twitter should obviously expand the video in place and let me add some commentary to it. It has only recently started to automatically expand things like this, but it does so inconsistently–sometimes and on some platforms it’s just a link and other times it’s an awesome, fully interactive module. It is unpredictable and I can’t preview it until after I publish the Tweet, which makes me wary of posting external content. Good product design should remove anxieties like these.

And that leads to me to the final thing I want to talk about, which is also the most important: Twitter has fucked up its platform. Twitter has turned into a place where famous people and news organizations broadcast text. That’s it. Nothing great is Built On Twitter, even though it should be the most powerful realtime communications platform on Earth. There are simply no developer integration features for building stuff on top of Twitter as a platform, and that is absurd and disappointing. The fact that automatic tweets from apps are considered rude is one of the biggest failings of Twitter’s product team–Twitter should be the place for apps to broadcast realtime information about someone. And yet the culture around the Twitter community has effectively banned such behavior because the product doesn’t have features to filter/organize such notifications.

The fact that Twitter has fucked up its platform, more than anything else, is why I think Twitter’s next CEO needs to be more of a visionary, a person who can walk into the room and say, “What the fuck have you been doing for the past three years?” The last thing Twitter needs is to sit on its ass, twiddling its thumbs, while the product team continues to completely fail at addressing its most dire imminent existential threats.

Disclaimer: I own Twitter stock.


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