Twitter isn’t a Social Network

One of my biggest frustrations with Twitter is that it’s a pretty clumsy mechanism for 2-way conversation (IM style) as well as “one and a half way” conversation (commenting on a tweet that may or may not elicit discussion). I posted a tweet the other day to see what other people think:

t11

I quickly got two responses from two people whose opinion I really respect (@sacca and @andrewchen).

@Sacca’s Response: “@webwright Speaking for myself, it seems like that could induce some lame behavior in asymmetric networks.”

@andrewchen’s response “@webwright inline replies work best in 2-way friending environments. Otherwise ppl you don’t follow show up in your main feed”

I found myself vehemently disagreeing with them, so I figured I’d blog through it as an product design exercise. Disclaimer note: armchair quarterbacking is easy. The Twitter team (note: @sacca is an investor/advisor) has more brain cells and a helluva lot more time invested in designing Twitter than I do– I have no illusions that a little rumination over Christmas makes me smarter than they are. I also know that there are (were?) some technical hurdles. For a while, Twitter wasn’t TOO good at understanding when an @ tweet was actually a reply, and which tweet it was replying to. Still the case, or no?

So here are some ideas for your consideration. I’d love to hear what folks think in the (delightfully threaded) comments.

1. Twitter would do better to think about their site as a content/microblog network than as a social network.

This is my fundamental disagreement with Andrew and Chris’s response. They’re thinking of Twitter like a social network with asynchronous/2-way friending (maybe it’s because the media is constantly comparing them to Facebook?). It isn’t, IMO. In fact, I think Twitter would have more success if they acted more like WordPress.com (or LiveJournal?) than like Facebook. Twitter followers aren’t friends. They are subscribers. The people you follow aren’t people you know– they are microblogs that you find interesting. Twitter is a fabulous distillation of blogs and an RSS reader all rolled into one. It’s 10x easier than blogging. Following is 10x easier than subscribing via RSS (and following is a lot more grok-able than RSS to begin with). But they’ve crippled/marginalized one of the key features that make blogging so damn sticky (for bloggers and readers)– comments and discussion.

2. The problems of Chris, Andrew and (to a hugely lesser degree!) me are not the problems that most Twitter users (or bloggers) have.

To many/most Twits/bloggers, they are doing it because they want to be heard. I remember when I first started blogging what an absolute rush it was to get a comment on my blog. Heck, it still is. Similarly, I confess to checking my @replies fairly often. Is anyone listening? Did my breathtakingly insightful/amusing tweets result in anyone replying or retweeting? I think this changes when you get to the follower count that some celebrities enjoy (Chris, who mentioned above that inline comments might result in too much noise, has ~1.3 million followers). Similarly, there are some pretty famous examples of prominent bloggers shutting OFF comments… They’ve transcended the “I just want to be heard” problem of most twits/bloggers and have graduated to the “holy crap, discussion is a nightmare to manage/moderate” problem. My guess is that the higher up you get at Twitter, the less the product managers empathize with people who have less than 100 followers, who often feel like they are talking to an empty room.

3. Regardless of whether you want Twitter to be a social network instead of a content/broadcast network, it’s more VALUABLE as a content network.

First of all, look at Twitter’s big pile of 4th quarter revenue (high five, Twitter!). That’s for content. That content would be more valuable if it was richer. Let’s take Paul Kredosky’s “Dishwasher” scenerio, discussed on Fred Wilson’s blog. He’s looking for a dishwasher and finds that Google’s organic search results are lousy. I empathize– after a 6 month home remodeling effort, I am aghast at how bad Google is once you move outside the realm of the “linkerati“). Paul searches for a dishwasher, and now that Twitter content is featured in Google results, he sees a tweet that says, “Just got a new Bosch ScrubGunner Dishwasher installed today. Amazing!” That tweet would be way more useful if it also had associated with it the three @replies that said stuff like “The ScrubGunner starts off strong, but has a record of exploding about 3 months after you buy it”. Added bonus– this would make Twitter’s permalink pages quite a bit richer in terms of indexable content, which would increase traffic dramatically. Permalink pages with lots of comments could actually be VALUABLE pages.

Even taking the search deals out of the equation, Twitter is a consumer web service and its stock and trade are things like pageviews, # of tweets, retention cohorts, return visits per day, etc. In short, it wants lots of addicted users using it a LOT. Nothing does this better than conversation and Twitter is lousy at conversation. There are very few emails I open more reliably than the Disqus comment notifications for my blog, the WordPress.com notifications for the RescueTime Blog, or Facebook telling me that someone has responded to one of my status updates. Further, nothing brings me BACK to a blog like a reply to my reply. Take a look at Fred Wilson and Neil Patel– they pretty religiously reply to every commenter on their site and it generates return visits, more (valuable) content, and happier “customers”.

In short, if Twitter made conversation easier and noisier, it’d help engagement, retention, and growth (or that’s my guess anyways). New users would graduate from the “empty room” feeling quicker.

4. To keep things simpler, they should consider punting retweets for replies/comments.

Retweets are interesting and certainly help Twitter and API-wranglers understand the value/popularity of a tweet. But they don’t feed the core need that Twitter is filling for most twits… To feel HEARD. Further, the retweet feature is simply too smart and assumes too much understanding of how Twitter works. I’d wager that if you took 10 “newborn” Twitter users and asked them to explain retweets, you’d get a fair bit of confusion (humble hat tip to Twitter though– I can’t imagine retweeting being implemented clearer than it is). Comments/conversations, on the other hand, are as old as the Internet. People grok that right out of the gates.

Beyond just “grokability”, retweets just aren’t as approachable as replies. While Facebook’s “like” feature is the lightest way to endorse a status update, the retweet FEELS heavier. It’s saying, “I like this– and I like it enough to broadcast it to others”. I personally @reply folks about 10x more than I retweet them (and I imagine I’m not alone). If this is true for most people, who not focus on enabling what most of your users are doing more often?

Discussion would also help with user discoverability. @replies are often a source of followers for me (replies to me as well as others when I bother to dive into the clickfest necessary to track a full conversation on Twitter).

5. How I’d implement inline discussion on Twitter.

Obviously, comments/discussion would accelerate the number of tweets dramatically, so I think slamming them all into the main feed might be bad. I’d:

- Add the text “11 replies to this Tweet” as a gray link at the bottom of any applicable Tweet (when shown in a stream) to i
- Add threaded replies on the tweet’s permalink page. So Tweets like THIS ONE would actually be rich/interesting/engaging conversation and clickthrus to tweets from search engines would actually have more meaningful content.
- present @replies that are actually replies to other tweets as part of a conversion. So the “in reply to…” text below reply tweets could be a bit richer/more enticing, like “reply to @username (13 other replies)”.
- Maybe present a “thumbs up” or “like” button (a la facebook) for light endorsements of a tweet (easier and less noisy than “I agree” or “this is awesome” comments). Would this be better than a retweet option?
- Allow people to turn off the above display of @replies if they want.

Twitter is obviously a public IM client/chatroom for some. For others, it’s a microblog broadcast platform. For still others, it may actually be a social network. But I’d contend that serving those first two audiences FIRST (by making conversation easier) would create happier users, gut-punch their early attrition problems, and create a more valuable business. What do you think?

(You should follow @sacca and @andrew_chen and maybe even me on Twitter!)

  • http://twitter.com/asmartbear Jason Cohen

    1. Agreed Twitter is more of a micro-blogging platform than a social network. For my use, it's even more specific: a link-sharing platform. This is particularly true of RT's.

    The people I know who use both FB and Twitter (me included) see the former as social and the latter as professional (or “personal brand”). I actively don't want two social networks anyway! Double the effort without any clear reward.

    2. Completely agree about the 1m follower use-case being different. Probably other strata in there as well?

    3. Not sure about “value.” Trending topics on Twitter tend to be social issues, not professional (*tend* to be, not always). This suggests most of the activity is social. However I don't think threaded comments destroy the notion of social anyway, with FB being the case in point.

    4. I completely disagree with you that RTs aren't fundamentally useful. I RT about as much as I invent, usually with commentary. RTs are a way for me to promote bon mots and posts I like while giving the original author full credit. Yes there's “(via @asmartbear)” and perhaps threaded comments could still work in the same manner, but the RT has a certain semantic meaning that I like. I do admit that there's probably a way to do threaded comments such that the role of the RT is subsumed sensibly, in which case that's fine, but I object to your assertions that they're hard to grok etc..

    5. I like the idea of keeping threads with the permalink. I don't like the idea of voting etc because the lack of such things is one of the distinguishing features of Twitter. Generally “more RTs” is how you “vote.” I see your point that maybe that's not optimal etc., and I would agree that “because it's always been that way” is not automatically a good argument against change, but sometimes it is!

    In general I don't want Twitter to develop a lot of “stuff” — options, buttons, etc.. Clearly the simplicity of the mechanism — even with complexity of the use-cases — is one of its primary benefits.

    I would add that Twitter needs to be careful to make any changes backward-compatible and incremental to avoid screwing up the massive ecosystem of API users — clients, services, etc.. IMO that ecosystem is another huge reason Twitter is successful. Consider that most tweets don't come from “Web.”

    Thanks for the interesting food for thought!

  • HighSearchEngineOptimization

    While I can largely agree that seeing replies in an inline fashion would make it easier, it would also be abandoning a lot what makes Twitter, well, Twitter. The fact that I can go back and see my comments, or rather, addressings, help make it so I can reply one-on-one, rather than having to use a makeshift “@” system like I do on Facebook.

    1. Micro-blogging is indeed the purpose, but it's not nearly the same as blogging. You don't address people in blogs like you do on Twitter. You expect full replies. It's not a conversation. A blog is simply a discussion followed by points for or against that discussion topic.

    3. Trending topics are fairly useless as it stands. I personally would like to see a “trending topics” feature amongst a one-level deep view fo your followers. This presents an interesting dilemma, however, in terms of algorithms and such.

    In addition to everything else, I'd prefer to see Twitter “let loose” on it's tight-knitted grip when it comes to API development. Every feature you want, I want, your friends want, could be easily addressed by this.

    But then again, that's just me.

  • HighSearchEngineOptimization

    While I can largely agree that seeing replies in an inline fashion would make it easier, it would also be abandoning a lot what makes Twitter, well, Twitter. The fact that I can go back and see my comments, or rather, addressings, help make it so I can reply one-on-one, rather than having to use a makeshift “@” system like I do on Facebook.

    1. Micro-blogging is indeed the purpose, but it's not nearly the same as blogging. You don't address people in blogs like you do on Twitter. You expect full replies. It's not a conversation. A blog is simply a discussion followed by points for or against that discussion topic.

    3. Trending topics are fairly useless as it stands. I personally would like to see a “trending topics” feature amongst a one-level deep view fo your followers. This presents an interesting dilemma, however, in terms of algorithms and such.

    In addition to everything else, I'd prefer to see Twitter “let loose” on it's tight-knitted grip when it comes to API development. Every feature you want, I want, your friends want, could be easily addressed by this.

    But then again, that's just me.

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