I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I saw a post on how most Twitter users do not use the service, and thought I’d expand some thoughts. The majority of my friends do not Tweet. Nor does my family. They do not care about it. They see “follow us on Twitter” during TV broadcasts and don’t know why they should. Further, they are not getting more interested despite an increasing barrage of the service. If anything, they are even less intrigued to the mystique that is Twitter than ever before. Note that some of my screenshots contain vulgar language – nothing compared to Xbox Live banter, but you’ve been warned.
Here’s the “first impression” a user gets by coming to twitter:
Independent of all other things, this doesn’t really give any insight as to why people are going crazy about Twitter. If I’ve heard that Oprah and Ashton are tweeting, and my favorite football player, and it’s the latest hottest thing, and all I see is a static page with a bunch of random-seeming terms, I’m not yet compelled. Further, the major tagline “Share and discover what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world” isn’t exactly right. If you make a search like “how are things in haiti” you get a very bizarre set of responses that do not inherently answer the question. Knowing how to search in Twitter is important, yet isn’t taught. Showing hashtags also overly geeks up the screen, and in a bad way. To continue this “new user experience”, I clicked on “pregnancy pact” (was curious) and saw the following:
This didn’t really explain anything to me, just showed me, well, the exact type of garbage the average person does not want to be reading. It’s not even gossip/fun, it’s just *weird*. Sure there’ll be the occasional clever gem, but for the most part, especially with popular topics, it’s becoming a haven for spam or utter drivel. Also, as an aside, Twitter should not display foul language to users who aren’t logged in – some people still prefer to keep vulgarity elsewhere. It actually gets even worse if you look at trending topics:
Now how about the new user experience from the perspective of following someone they were “told” to follow. The @CNN account shows recent CNN headlines, as it should. However, this does not exactly “add value” to someone’s life, as finding CNN headlines is relatively easy to do. How about mega-celebrity @Oprah?
Not exactly new and interesting, and definitely not “real-time”. All we’ve learned is she seems to like Avatar, uses capital letters inappropriately, and then includes a bunch of things that look like gobbledygook. Why? Because once you do get “into” Twitter, you start using acronyms, links, and vocabulary that make texting look downright poetic. What’s a ow.ly? Who’s RT? It looks foreign and daunting. It’s as if there’s a huge “insider’s” club, and if you don’t get it, you feel awkward and alienated.
Finally, there’s looking at what happens once someone actually does sign up for Twitter and use it. They are presented a seemingly random list of “suggested” users. Following these people creates a stream of equally foreign and incomprehensible Tweets, likely about topics that aren’t interesting to anyone other than a small group, and again, in an exclusionary, not inclusionary, manner. Trying to catch the eye/ear of others is near-impossible, and building a following outside one’s small social circle is unlikely to occur. More stats:
The average Twitter user has 27 followers, which is down from 42 followers in August, according to the new study. About 25% of users have no followers at all; that’s up from 20% with no followers last August. Upward of 40% of users only have one to five followers.
So what should Twitter do about it?
This is the million billion dollar question. The company is already in danger of reaching the backlash phase inevitable in modern society (get too big/successful and you become the enemy, deservedly or not – see Starbucks, Google, Wal-mart, etc). Some say it’s already started. I don’t think so, as I think we haven’t even come to the point where people care yet. That said, my non-Twitter “regular world” friends are already telling me they’re tired of the inundation of “follow us on Twitter” they see during TV shows, Web sites, etc. This is a problem, and Twitter must solve it to get as big as they want to be – otherwise this whole thing will get outed as a “early adopter only” toy, and valuations will come crashing down. And if it starts to crash, even a little bit, it probably won’t recover – nobody wants to hang out in the club that was cool 3 years ago, but only your dad goes to now.
In my opinion, Twitter needs to thoroughly overhaul the new user experience. Forget “suggested users” and focus on “suggested uses“. Part of the reason the media like Twitter so much is it is actually useful for doing their job. They can publicize their content rapidly and directly, can interact with both readers and companies, and make reporting/blogging/journalism a component of how they use Twitter. For celebrities, be they Web-only or real ones, it’s good for personal branding not to mention a nice ego-feed. For events which occur in real-time (Hudson plane crash, Haiti earthquake, elections, etc) it’s a good way of finding out information as it occurs (though obviously fraught with error and rumormongering).
Notice how we’ve still ruled out “normal people living normal lives”? There’s zero relevance to the average person who wants to live in private. Even as they dabble at lifecasting, there’s no reward, as the game logic to using Twitter is fundamentally broken. Unlike FourSquare, or new site TheSixtyOne, there is no form of achievement system. If anything, you are measured up against people with millions of followers, a completely unattainable goal. Here’s the opposite: the very first thing I saw on thesixtyone:
Even though the above shot has some confusion, it’s so much closer to telling me something to do, how to do it, and how I benefit from it. Twitter could easily do the same: “find 10 sports figures (or bands or politicians, etc) and follow them” or “retweet (RT) three people with less followers than you” etc. This system could scale up pretty high, and create a much more interesting hierarchy for the “twitterati” as well.
The folks at Twitter are clearly smart (and yeah, they got a little lucky along the way, but that’s part of being smart IMHO), and clearly know they need to do something, and soon. Twitter needs to be able to positively convert new users into active users, and absolutely must work on the “why do I care what someone’s having for lunch?” reputation the site has. I believe an achievement type of system that rewards “good behavior” is the right way to do it (not to mention major user interface/experience overhauls). As it stands now, I’ll return to my prior conviction that Twitter has not proven themselves as a viable platform, and must still navigate extremely well and carefully to be the billion dollar company everyone wants them to be.