Twitter: too much media, not enough social

Twitter is my digital chocolate. The term ‘addicted’ is inappropriate, as my level of commitment and attachment to both is near-absolute. Remission and rehab from their use is unthinkable. Instant information and copious cocoa are essential everyday luxuries: commodities that once were unknown, then expensive exotica, and now have become absolutely quotidian.

With chocolate, I am very clearly the customer. Indeed, I recently subscribed to the service from Cocoa Runners. I now have premium and pure versions of my preferred mood-altering substance delivered regularly and frequently by post. The interests of my theobromine dealer are well-aligned with my own.

With Twitter, I am painfully aware that I am the product. Advertisers are the customer, and my intellectual effort is being harvested to the benefit of Twitter’s shareholders. This puts the interests of my digital dopamine dealer at odds with my own. How might things be different?

An appreciation of Twitter

Before I point out some ways in which Twitter may have gotten too bitter, I would like to point out the many praiseworthy elements of the service.

It is the memetic equivalent of the transistor. The act of subscription connects the information collector to the emitter; the retweet is the base signal that amplifies ideas. Whereas hyperlinks connect web pages, tweets are ‘hypermessages’ with URLs that spread at Web speed.

On top of this we have hashtags that are the system’s associative memory. These allows us to navigate related thoughts, a kind of ‘hypermeme’. This makes for a ‘superevolutionary’ spread of good ideas, as they jump between feeds and followers.

The ‘favourite’ system, which (regrettably) morphed into ‘like’, offers the chance to salute a tweet that resonates. The ‘favourite’ was a good metasyntactic message between users, which had many possible contextual meanings; saying ‘like’ to “My dog just ate my goldfish!” doesn’t have that semantic flexibility.

Other primates groom each other and pick fleas from fur; we send little social signals via follows, retweets and likes. This feedback feeds our deep-seated need for connection and to be acknowledged as existing. It’s a potent concoction of digital biochemistry that results in an irresistible ‘melts in the mind’ flavour.

Too much “media” in the mix

The dominant business model for online media businesses is advertising, rather than subscriptions. Our surplus insights are tweeted, then thumbed through by the thousand. Other people’s creative thoughts are the digital grain for funnel-feeding our insatiable media consumer appetites. Cognitive capitalists strip-mine our identities and appropriate our content and culture for profit.

The problem with Twitter is that advertising jars with the essential nature of the service. We carefully curate the sources of information in order to gain the perfect flavour of feeds. Then Twitter throws in an advert (which isn’t obvious until you’ve scrolled to its end).

These ads taste like a high-fructose Hershey bar laden with vegetable fat; fake information food at a feast. The incongruence with the gourmet hand-crafted information truffles around it is jarring.

How Twitter’s mission is misconstrued

My sense is that Twitter has misunderstood its commercial purpose it two critical ways. The first is the ‘what’, and the second the ‘how’.

The erroneous ‘what’ is to focus on the too narrow a part of the customer journey of its users when interacting with enterprises. Advertising is only one part of marketing, which in turn is only one part of a complete customer lifecycle: identify the customer, market, sell, fulfil, bill, service and support.

Twitter has not created the business enablers for that full lifecycle of interaction. In particular, it has failed to create a fit-for-purpose channel for all live B2C/C2B customer service interaction, which is where it has shone by accident. (For more details on this issue and opportunity, see my 2010 white paper “Connect, Interact, Transact”.)

The unhelpful ‘how’ is that Twitter is positioned as a media company (hence adverts) rather than a conversational commerce one. The features that matter should be centred on messaging, both public and private. Moments of order fulfilment (“Would you like the packaged delivered early, or do a different address?”) or service (“How did we do? Here’s a poll…”) are poorly catered for.

The opportunity to supersede SMS has been missed: Facebook, WeChat and others are taking up the rich media messaging and machine learning bot challenge. Twitter risks being marooned in a niche, misunderstanding the nature of its business. Messaging is the new medium of choice, and social ‘media’ is the wrong message. Adverts are anti-social. Which leads us to…

Not enough “social” on the menu

The other essential problem of Twitter’s model is that it has failed to cater for a vital element of a true social experience. Humans live in groups, and many of them at once. These are typically arranged around some affinity structure: the football team, the school, the choir.

What Twitter has not done is to enable affinity groups as a first-class object in its social model. Everything has to fit into a simple “feeds and followers” structure. That doesn’t sufficiently represent reality.

For instance, I attended Jeff Pulver’s excellent How We Communicate event in Los Gatos, CA two weeks ago. (The next one is in Boston on September 20th-22nd.) There’s no way to model how that collection of attendees and speakers is very relevant to me for some period.

I don’t necessarily want to permanently follow everyone at the event, but maybe I’d like the option to “bulk follow”. More likely, I’d like my feed to change to reflect that transient change in context. There’s a big difference between following the conference’s own feed, and having temporary access to the collective feeds of the speakers or attendees. How can we reference groups, not just individuals?

It is almost as if Twitter has a pattern of deprecating the features that ought to be most important to its long-term success. Direct Messages and lists are in the data model, but hidden in the user interface.

If these features had been the focus of development, rather than a backwater, then we could have found new ways to curate more relevant information feeds. Lists could have become contextual wellsprings of engagement. By enabling more meaningful interaction with enterprises, Twitter could have replaced 1-800 numbers to become a default mechanism around which B2C/C2B customer interaction takes place.

Instead Twitter has become yet another dumb platform for distracted eyeballs. That saddens me, as it has brought me so many tasty experiences.

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