Joe Caiati recently published a piece on his weblog entitled “Twitter is Lost. Can it be Found?” in which he discussed some of the problems Twitter has. More specifically, their lack of vision and inability to explain what the service is and why anyone would want to use it. The piece was well written and I agree with a lot of what he said, but I think it missed the mark overall on a couple of key points.
Regarding Twitter’s problem of unfamiliarity:
The moms and dads of the world get Facebook. Shortly after signing up there, people you know are quick to follow back, but with Twitter, you’re left with a tool that is unfamiliar. This is a hurdle that I think they’ve tried to fix, but never proven successful. Instead, it appears they’ve moved that problem to the back burner and moved on to acquiring companies as a contingency to keep their business on-the-rise.
I think this gets to the heart of why I think Twitter will succeed where other social networks have failed. Twitter’s unfamiliarity and steep learning curve is actually one of its best features. If there’s anything I’ve learned watching the rise and fall of social networks over the years it’s that once the parents show up, it isn’t cool anymore.
My teenage cousins don’t use Facebook like they used to — it’s now the kind of place you go when you want to share pictures with your grandma. But, those same cousins absolutely love Twitter. On Twitter they can interact with their friends and have the freedom to say whatever they want without the worry that their parents are going to eavesdrop on them.
Parents don’t typically understand what Twitter is. And even if they tried signing up for an account, it’s unlikely that they could figure out how to find people they know on it. And that’s setting aside their ability to grok the one-way following mechanism.
Twitter hasn’t grown at the rate that Facebook has, but I think that’s a good sign that users won’t get burned out quite so quickly. Slow growth is better than no growth and I think if Twitter wants to be the “cool” social network then focusing their efforts on getting everyone signed up and using it is actually a bad idea. If you want to be perceived as the place where cool people hang out there needs to be some level of savvy required to get in. This helps maintain a sense of exclusivity which generates interest in anyone who wants to be part of the crowd that “gets it.”
While I think Twitter has made plenty of missteps along the way — revoking applications’ access to social graph information and limiting the number of API tokens accessible to developers being some of the worst offenses — I think their lack of work towards a more streamlined and easy to understand sign-up process might be a blessing in disguise. At some point we might look back on it as one of the most important reasons for the service’s longevity by contributing to the perception that “Twitter is for the cool kids.” And, it’s hard to keep that moniker if your dad and grandma have an account (even if your dad and grandma happen to be one of the coolest).
And, on Twitter’s lack of vision:
Close to ten years later and I still can’t explain to you what Twitter’s main vision is and as a company, they seem more fragmented than ever. Sustainability doesn’t correlate with purpose and by no means am I saying that they are doomed, but the current path they are taking has seemed to lead them to nowhere.
I doubt that Twitter has made a conscious decision to maintain a kind-of barrier to entry. But unlike Joe, I think they are better off having it than not, at least from the perspective of longevity. Certainly they could skyrocket their usage numbers if they did a better job explaining to new users what Twitter is and why they should use it. But, I think that would lead to unsustainable growth and an eventual downfall. Don’t get me wrong, Twitter will at some point cease to exist. But, I think they are delaying that fate by ignoring the “problem” and spending time in other areas.
I think saying that Twitter’s current path has led them to nowhere is a is more than a little hyperbolic. They are one of the powerhouse social networks in the industry and even if they have a string of mediocre acquisitions, that hasn’t kept them from being the place that I, and millions of others go to everyday to do whatever it is we do on Twitter. Because we’re the “cool kids” that actually “get it,” and that might actually be the point of successful social networks.