We need to talk about Twitter

I’ve tried not to write about Twitter’s announcement from last week. I haven’t seen the feature yet in my timeline (not available on Android or web yet) but I understand the concept is to highlight tweets about newsworthy events since the last time the user logged on. MarketingLand summarized: “Starting today on iOS apps… users who open Twitter after an absence will often see three tweets at the top of their timeline under a “While you were away …” heading. Twitter says the Recap tweets will be from people you follow, determined by level of “engagement and other factors.”

Almost immediately, Twitter’s power users, of which I follow quite a few, lamented that The Algorithm was taking over the timeline… just like Facebook (the last was said with derision peppered with despair.)

But joking aside, it’s time to realize that users of Twitter are differentiated not only by how often they use it but what they do and how they do it. Sure, this happens on many platforms and there are always “power users.” Yet on Twitter the difference seems so vast that whenever a product is launched intended to help the newbies on Twitter, it almost always angers the power users. Conversely, many new users abandon Twitter before they give it a real chance. Why? possibly because Twitter has a very steep learning curve, one that requires time and commitment to Twitter to overcome. That, along with the expectation users have to spend very little time learning how to use a product, along with many other social applications vying for their attention, can and does result in abandonment.

When I try to explain Twitter to non-users it is hardly ever easy. New users might sign up for Twitter because they’ve heard about it, or saw a hashtag or handle in an ad, or maybe even because a friend told them how great it was. They expect to see the benefits right away, as they usually do in other social platforms, apps or games. Yet the current onboarding process is long and assumes the user understands a bit of what Twitter is about (example: choose lists of people to follow. To what?) That’s not always the case. Rather, there is a huge chasm between what new users expect from Twitter right at the start and what they actually experience. The onboarding process tries to address this somewhat with the instant lists but either the lists are wrong or users are just too impatient to get the onboarding over and start using the “real Twitter.”

Twitter offers a really unique and wonderful product. I value the ability to connect with a diverse group of people I otherwise have no chance of meeting. I value the updates and the engagement. Yet I realize how long it took me to get here. In order to learn about, say, the events at Ferguson and how it affected the black community I had to follow activists and people who were actually there; to learn about GamerGate, I followed the women making the biggest impact; to keep abreast of news in my industry I followed some VCs of newer funds, some startup CEOs and a lot of product managers; to follow issues facing women in technology I followed a group of women I “encountered” during the Grace Hopper conference. (Note: even as I wrote this list, I realized how much understanding of “Twitterese” one has to be fluent in to understand that “encountered” on Twitter means that someone I followed retweeted them or they used a certain hashtag and after liking their tweets I decided to follow them.) The list of people I follow is always changing as I “meet” new people and yes, abandon a few that bore me. My point: Twitter is hard but extremely useful.

Facebook's news from this morning. Irrelevant to me.

Facebook’s news from this morning. Irrelevant to me.

As a point of comparison, I looked at Facebook’s “news” for me this morning. As my Twitter was talking about challenges facing minorities when learning how to code, a few recently launched apps, and how the New York storm would affect Uber pricing, Facebook talked about the storm, Tom Petty’s royalty deal and a crime in Georgia.

Like it or not, Twitter’s success is measured by MAUs (monthly active users) and the growth of said MAUs (see Ev Williams’ great post on this topic on Medium for context.) It is unfair of the power users who love the product and know how to use it to maximize its value, to deride any new product Twitter launches to attract and keep new users. Yet, unfair as it is, Twitter needs to think how the new products will affect both sides of the user spectrum. One thing that Twitter might do (I have no inside source at Twitter, so they could be already doing this) is to start treating the different audiences, well, differently. By all means create more products for newbies to generate engagement faster, but understand that the power users don’t need or what those kinds of features. Analyze user behaviour and interactions to understand what category a specific user is in and offer products accordingly. Allow users to opt in and out of certain features (this for the power users who dread the algorithm “destroying” their timeline.) Respect the newbies and the power users and everyone on the scale between them.

Twitter Monthly Active Users: per quarter and year-to-year growth. Source: Business Insider via Yahoo.

Twitter Monthly Active Users: per quarter and year-to-year growth.
Source: Business Insider

One final note: I’d love to have stats on when users abandon Twitter, at what stage do they never return? I also have a completely unsubstantiated theory that some users abandon Twitter because they cannot find a handle that they like. I wonder how many of the more common names simply don’t want to be @emma242016.



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