Sunday, October 25, 2015

Turning the good ship Twitter

Much has been written on the fate of Twitter over the last few weeks as Jack Dorsey (@jack) has retaken the helm and promised to put the company back on course. And a lot of what has been written is sensible and constructive but mostly either misses the core problem or speaks about it without calling it out directly. And that core problem is the product.
Honestly its been the core problem all along. I was first introduced to Twitter back in 2007 (@tshelton) and back then it was, well, a lot like it is today. Back then we could post 140 characters to a group of people who had decided to follow us, and along with other people they had followed they'd get our posts in the same chronological order in which they were sent.
Today -- sure there are photos and videos and advertisements... but its basically the same universal message bus that it was back in 2007. As infrastructure it was very cool back then. Having a universal message bus excited all sorts of people, thinking about how messages could be sent by anyone and anything and received by anyone and anything. High speed, hugely scalable, global reach...
But after 8 years so many new things have emerged that have carved out pieces of what Twitter could have been -- what Twitter should have served as an infrastructure to power.
But I do not believe it is too late for Twitter. I've compiled ten specific things Jack should be working on in four specific categories to make Twitter relevant again. Some have been tried, some have been mentioned by others, and some (hopefully) Twitter is really working on. But I've gathered together these ten things because I think that collectively they would offer a complete shift in product strategy and from there a renewed meaning and importance for Twitter:
Improve how we create content
1. New content types -- Twitter needs to go way beyond media types and think more about the wide range of possible content types that could be in a message envelope. Each tweet is a data element. Give these data elements a range of self-indentifying types that serve different purposes. For example: A tweet-object could be an iCal event and your calendar could subscribe to a particular feed and receive a stream of updates. Think about message types that might flow between people, from people to machines, and from machines to machines.
2. New ways to submit content -- In 2007 (remember pre-iPhone?) having 140 characters and being able to send a tweet via SMS seemed fantastic. But now I have lots of technology that should be able to send messages including a lot of it without my having to do anything. For example, why not have an app on my phone that uses Twitter to automatically check in to an event with the organizer? 
3. Curation of content (channels) -- Twitter could be a fantastic source for news and information, but there is too much and Twitter just delivers it at a steady stream, one chronological post after another. Channels could be created by interested users or entities to curate the best content. And the content wouldn't simply be chronological, but would be organized through a deliberate ordering process. The Washington Post would maintain a channel that simply matched the organization of their website news sections while an individual tech reporter might pull the best from several news outlets and decide what was the most important. Automated algorithms could be applied by users to their own selected sources, allowing me for example to achieve a Facebook style feed of my friend's posts based on who I seemed most interested in at any given time. Importantly users who invested the time to create channels should have a payback model, earning through the number of subscribers in order to encourage quality and engagement.
Improve how we consume content
4. Those curated channels I mentioned -- this will require a big change in the user interface, allowing me to easily flip from channel to channel rather than viewing the whole stream. Perhaps even entirely new reading experiences need to be developed.
5. TV style programming for video content -- I want to simply play @kingbach one after another endlessly and not click on each link. Twitter could be an amazing way to organize and provide instructions to all types of playback devices for online video channels
6. Machine readers not just human readers -- many applications on my desktop and devices in my home could be recipients of Tweets and have new functionality as a result. Use twitter as the message bus for digital picture frames, lawn watering schedules...
Help companies do a better job
7. Companies need easier integration into CRM -- if Twitter is going to be used as a way for consumers to connect to customer service or sales organizations, make it super easy for a company to connect with that customer, know who they are, and provide timely responses to their inquiries.
8. Consulting to help with best practices -- don't just throw the message bus out into the world hoping that companies will figure out how to use it -- provide hands on assistance to help them. This could be an important new revenue stream as well as improving company behavior on Twitter which improves user's experiences.
9. Enable special experiences — When I arrive at Disneyland, Twitter could connect me to the magic kindom in a magical way. Combining messaging, location, and the connection between people and companies could enable a whole new range of customer experiences. This could be much more powerful as an "advertising" vehicle for the company.
Insights - for people and companies
10. Twitter should have a big analytics team tracking public policy issues, investigating questions that companies have, enabling inquiries into trends... Many third parties try to offer these services but Twitter has all of the core data. Why not be the authoritative source? And there is significant money to be made by offering these insights to companies and other organizations.
I've enjoyed using Twitter over the past 8 years but like many others I do find my attention shifting elsewhere. There are too many ways to communicate and too many ways to stay informed. Many of them have pushed into the areas I mention above and are providing the kinds of new experiences that I want in my mobile-centric life. But I don't think it is too late for Twitter to turn the ship. And I for one am hoping Jack will succeed.