October 20, 2016

Where will the next Twitter come from?

Twitter the company is in trouble, but Twitter the platform I believe will live on

Twitter the company is in dire straits. They’ve raised too much money, floundered with product improvements, squandered their acquisitions, lost too much money and finally tried to sell themselves only to have no one want to buy them. Partly because of their spam/abuse problem and seeming complete lack of ability or desire to fix it.

But, Twitter the platform is something meaningful and incredible. It’s like nothing else on the web - something that a dedicated userbase is glued to almost more than any other service online. If you ignore the abuse problems it’s almost a public good.

I’m personally invested in Twitter - I’ve been a user for almost 10 years and it’s the app I use on my phone more than any other. Venkatesh Rao wrote a little series in his newsletter that captured the spirit of Twitter better than any I’ve seen:

1/ Hypothesis: there are technologies so basic that they serve as prequels to economic organization and utility vs. private type end-game debates

2/ Possible examples: Craigslist, Twitter, Unix shell. One maybe: Wikipedia. They are all sui generis and defy analysis within categories

3/ They are destined neither for commodity status as private sector technologies, nor for utility status as public services.

4/ What they do instead is create frontier land, sparking land-grab economic races.

9/ Twitter “failing” to own the revolutions it obviously took mainstream (messaging, chatbots) isn’t a failure really if viewed that way.

11/ Wrong because it’s very incomplete. There’s like 10-15 Slack/Snapchat sized businesses left to carve out of the “Twitter continent.” Any single one is a full-time job for one company.

12/ Examples: Nobody has “pulled a Slack” on “political revolutions” product that’s inside Twitter, or the “nascent community” product

24/ Twitter and Craigslist have taught us some huge new things about how hundreds of millions of networked people behave

The whole stream is worth reading.

Fred Wilson, who is heavily invested in Twitter sums up from a more emotional perspective:

I realize that I am horribly biased on this topic and that others may not see what I see. But I have always felt that Twitter is a special company, full of conflicts and contradictions, that, maybe because of them, had the potential to deliver something unique, different, and compelling. And I continue to believe that.

So what happens next?

Ben Thompson of Stratechery pointed out this piece by Bronte Capital and I think we both largely agree with the points raised. Most clearly:

Twitter is past that. Somewhere near half a billion dollars of costs need to be taken out almost immediately. And that involves firing people and being a general tough-bastard. It’s inevitable anyway - because Jack Dorsey burning half a billion dollar per year isn’t a sustainable business. The cash eventually runs out.

The problem is if you mix this with a Salesforce.com or similar company it will be really hard to take costs out in a disciplined fashion without upsetting the culture of the home company. Instead this should be fixed (with extreme prejudice by a disinterested outsider) before it is sold again to a strategic buyer.

Or - in summary: the best bastards are from Wall Street. And this needs a Wall Street bastard.

So what happens next? Likely a firesale and gutting of the business. And, I’d predict, followed shortly after by a widespread abandon ship of users.

But where to?

Twitter Alternatives

There have been a few Twitter alternatives over the last few years none of which have gained widespread adoption.

First there was app.net - an ambitious project that tried to tackle the problem developer-first. Dalton Caldwell was one of the most vocal critics of the moves Twitter made to shut down the API and limit the developer aspects of Twitter, as he made clear in his piece what twitter could have been:

As I understand, a hugely divisive internal debate occurred among Twitter employees around this time. One camp wanted to build the entire business around their realtime API. In this scenario, Twitter would have turned into something like a realtime cloud API company. The other camp looked at Google’s advertising model for inspiration, and decided that building their own version of AdWords would be the right way to go.

As you likely already know, the advertising group won that battle, and many of the open API people left the company. While I can understand why the latter camp wanted to build an ad-based business, the futurist in me thinks this was a tragic mistake. If you are building an advertising/media business, it would then follow that you need to own all of the screen real-estate that users see. The next logical step would be to kill all 3rd-party clients, and lock down the data in the global firehose in order to control the “content”.

Unfortunately the app.net experiment was too developer-centric and never really gained the adoption necessary.

Then there’s alternatives that are coming at the whole Twitter space from a micropublishing perspective, for example 1999.io from Dave Winer. Some core principles behind the project from Dave:

A home page from which everything radiates.

A focus on simplicity, an intense level of factoring to reduce the number of steps it takes to post something new or edit an existing post.

I wanted the fluidity of Twitter and Facebook. It should be just as easy to create a new post as it is to write a tweet, of course without the 140 char limit.

I think of this as the first post-Twitter post-Facebook blogging system.

While 1999 is still very new (despite the name) and still has plenty of time and room to grow I think the focus might be that it’s too strongly holding on to what blogging was (on purpose!) and as he says, intentionally focusing on “a home page from which everything radiates”.

The problem is that while the publishing piece is fluid, fast and frictionless - the reading and distribution still has a lot of friction in it - as evidenced by having to navigate to homepages.

And, of course outside the US there’s Weibo. From a piece on The Next Web:

Twitter has hit the skids as it struggled to keep users. The company has lost more than 5 million monthly active users over the past 12 months, attracting a total of 313 million users each month.

In contrast, Weibo is currently pulling in 282 million monthly visitors, but – unlike its American rival – it can brag with an increase of almost 70 million active monthly users in the last 12 months.

And last, but not least - what about Facebook? I was struck by the deep insights around how Facebook is used by the farmers in Myanmar. Craig Mod wrote a wonderful essay that had this section on usage of Twitter and Facebook:

The Farmers don’t use their real names (“I used my son’s name,” Farmer fourteen told us. Why? “Because it’s a good name!” he said smiling and patting his 1-year-old son on the head.) They don’t have email addresses and so often don’t know their logins. If they get logged out they have someone—often the village Facebook guru—make them a new account. “Friends” on Facebook are friends only because the application calls them friends in the interface. The language of our apps shapes our expectations of our apps, but when the language isn’t your own, isn’t localized, that authority is undermined. “Friends” become something else entirely—random avatars who share an affinity for news stories you happen to stumble across. There is a fluidity to the Myanmar Farmer Facebook experience, one that makes me a little jealous. I feel a bit too locked into the rigidity of our western Facebook expectations. Those Farmers in Myanmar have what feels like a more native fluency than those of us supposedly well versed. Than those of us who say we know what we’re doing.

And yet I can’t help but wonder why Twitter fails to gain traction. It’s simpler. It consumes less bandwidth. It’s model is more minimal, the interface far less complicated. Facebook is a caricature of an interface—the equivalent of the space shuttle, all buttons and dials and switches, so many of which have nothing to do with the core user experience. And yet, these Myanmar farmers wade through the muck, compelled by information hunger.

But Facebook has a compelling advantage over other news apps or even Twitter: The content of many posts and news items live inside Facebook itself. There are external links, but most of the article summaries and photos are self contained. As Facebook continues to ramp up their Instant Articles—special versions of web articles that are leaner, load more quickly, and are Facebook optimized—the amount of content that lives in Facebook will only increase. For those who are data sensitive, this is a clear virtue. One certainly worth whatever learning curve may come with the platform.

Twitter recently announced that it will allow up to 10,000 characters “below” the tweet. If critical news can live inside of Twitter, in a fundamentally less bandwidth intensive and a simpler model than even Facebook, then the popular interest may shift. There is no explicit brand loyalty amongst these farmers.

The Next Twitter

So each of these networks might somehow gain prominence or maybe Twitter will just expire and we’ll move on with a gap in our digital lives. But I do believe there’s something new waiting to be adopted - and the troubles with Twitter the company (cash, management) and Twitter the platform (abuse, spam, focus) make right now the perfect time for something to emerge.

Crucially - while some aspects of Twitter might get carved up and taken more private within messaging apps and closed communities I think there’s a role for open media conversation and distribution that would be a big vacuum left if Twitter disappeared. Certainly Facebook has avoided involvement in media distribution - disseminating false, fake, clickbait viral news faster and wider than ever and removing humans from the process to claim no responsibility. While I find this approach dishonest and irresponsible it seems likely that they will just ignore this problem for the foreseeable future.

So what will the next Twitter look like? Will it be more closed? More open? Will a messaging app pivot into something more open/closed? Will it look more like micropublishing or more like a central social platform? Will a software company like Google build the platform where media is distributed? Or will a media company build the software that distributes content?

However it shakes out, we live in interesting times.

What’s your thoughts?

Update: @vgr posted a tweetstorm in response. Start here.

Update 2: @willcritchlow posted a tweetstorm. Start here.

Update 3: What if Bezos stepped in to build something here? His deep technical talents coupled with his ruthless focus on the user could make this a success I think - and it would be an ideal complement to his acquisition of the Washington Post. Hmm. More to think about here.

Update 4: Of course I’m not the first or only one to think about Bezos & Twitter. See Mark Suster’s tweet convo here.

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: