In a world where last week almost seems like a decade ago, you can call me slow on the uptake for just getting around to reading Jesse Hempel's feature in Fortune, "Trouble @Twitter," a week after it published.
But now I've read it, and am glad I have, if for no other reason than it makes a good column topic. Yes, kids, even in the frenetic world of social media, finding column topics, week-in, week-out is hard. (Oh, right, the still unconfirmed union of Twitter and Tweetdeck -- which leaked as a possibility in the early part of the week -- helped me dream up this column idea too.
To first briefly summarize the article, it details a long list of executive arrivals, departures, and re-arrivals (see Jack Dorsey), amid indecision or infighting about what Twitter is, and what it's supposed to be. This is all cast against a backdrop of slowing growth, depending on which statistician you choose to believe and what you're measuring. In the story, Twitter countered a comScore stat showing slowing U.S. growth with Quantcast data showing 50% growth worldwide.
Whatever you believe about traffic, certainly the executive shifts at the top are indisputable. But if I had to pick out what to emphasize in terms of Twitter's growing pains, it would center around three things:
1. That Twitter, to a much greater extent than Facebook or LinkedIn (or Myspace), is a user-led phenomenon.
2. That Twitter isn't Facebook, but can't escape comparisons to Facebook.
3. That, like other Internet hotshots that have come before, Twitter has a love/hate relationship with advertising.
Let me elaborate:
1. Twitter as user-led phenomenon. To summarize Hempel, Facebook (those comparisons again!) had an ultra-clear vision from the get-go, while Twitter, though details of the story vary, was invented, put into the marketplace, and then directed by users. I'd embellish by saying that even though you could describe Twitter's mission statement as "What are you doing now?" -- the original question posed by anyone who logged in -- it's actually much more complicated than that, because people use it for different reasons.
If you're Conan O'Brien, you use it as a broadcast medium; if you're me, you use it as a place to catch up on what's happening in social, connect with others, and promote posts; if you're a brand, you use it for listening and customer outreach. Though overlapping, each of these ways of using Twitter has their differences. Twitter defies easy categorization. Hempel asserts that Twitter hasn't developed a clear idea of what it wants to deliver; I'd argue that users are the ones who've been deciding that all along.
2. Twitter as a rival to Facebook, when
it's not. This is related to point #1. Here's what Twitter and Facebook have in common: they caught traction at relatively the same time, and have some of the same functionality. But
at that point, their paths diverge considerably.
This expresses itself both in behavioral and demographic terms. The relationship from follower to followee on Twitter is much more arms-length because it's not necessarily reciprocal. This alters the very nature of interaction, and is part of what makes Twitter much more of a broadcasting platform than Facebook.
As such, even though great conversations happen there, I'd bet a higher percentage of day-to-day use is for business and promotional purposes than on Facebook. I think that's why I've seen only a handful of, for instance, women in the town where I live sign on. (Even then, I can't remember ever seeing them actually use it.) We all joke about our hundreds of Facebook friends, but Facebook still represents a much tighter circle of relationships than Twitter does. That's not a criticism of one or the other, but it is an illustration of why we should probably stop talking about them in the same breath.
3. Having a love/hate relationship with advertising. Like almost every good Web property, Twitter wants two things: to build a solid, free, user experience and to support it with advertising. But where Twitter, like many of them, gets tripped up, is on fitting advertising into a good user experience. You could take this as a sign of ongoing queasiness within the executive ranks about the role of advertising (see Hempel's synopsis of what happened to Twitter's so-called "DickBar" for the iPhone) -- or you could say building a satisfying Twitter advertising experience is simply harder.
I'm not sure where I land on this one, frankly. I've written too many times to count about how Google's ad model is much more intuitive to the overall experience than it ever can be on a social network. Whatever social network we choose, when we go on them we're looking for connections, not commerce. On the other hand, Facebook has been more willing to push the envelope further on advertising. There's no reason - other than concerns about the user experience - that prevents Twitter from running display ads, or simpler ads like Facebook's (comparisons again!), down the right-hand column.
Which brings me to point #4 - which just occurred to me. It loops back into point #1, which is Twitter being a user-led experience. Maybe I should have said it's a user and developer-led experience. When you look at all of the things Twitter offers clients- that Twitter either doesn't, or developed in its own way only after a developer did it -- you realize just how much about Twitter wasn't created at Twitter. That's a nifty segue into talking about reports that Twitter might buy Tweetdeck. I remember my initial reaction when I first started using Tweetdeck a few years ago: this is better than Twitter. Consequently, I started to use Twitter more, and got a lot more out of the Twitter/Tweetdeck experience than I did at Twitter.com.
So, if Twitter is in an existential funk -- I'm not entirely convinced it is -- acquiring Tweetdeck could give it the burst of innovation that all companies, not just headline-making social networks, need.
(We've just posted the agenda for the next OMMA Social, part of a four-day Mediapost extravaganza during June's Internet Week in New York. Check it out, and get in touch if you'd like to be a speaker.)