Twitter’s Next Chapter

Chris Sacca recently wrote a longish article about Twitter. The piece itself is pretty measured. Sacca highlights some of Twitter’s biggest accomplishments, giving credit to the founders for pulling off feats many naysayers doubted from the company’s inception. But Sacca also criticizes Twitter for a number of alleged failings.

Before we consider those “failings,” I want to lay out why I think Sacca is right to publicly articulate his misgivings about Twitter’s current strategy. It’s critical to do so because a lot of heavyweights have slammed Sacca for publicly calling out Twitter and its leadership.

One more note. I am not going to consider each criticism Sacca made. I am going to pick out the biggest problems and give some quick reactions that I hope move the discussion forward.

We Need Transparent Discussion

  1. Criticism of public companies is healthy — Sustained and thoughtful criticism provides fresh, bold insights that public companies can leverage without paying private consultants.
  2. Insiders are not empowered to offer trenchant criticism — If you’ve ever worked in a technology startup or public company, you know that the truth is sometimes not welcome. Without delving into why this is the case in specific instances, suffice it to say that company employees and insiders are not universally rewarded for calling out poor decisions or management blunders. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say.
  3. CEOs and C-Staff are not delicate flowers — I’ve worked with a lot of CEOs and entrepreneurs, and they are not thin skinned. Whatever Sacca dished out in his blog, they’ve all endured worse. Let’s stop pretending that executives need to be coddled or protected. They’re tough enough to take a little heat, provided it’s fair and coming from a constructive place.

Sacca’s Qualms with Twitter

As I mentioned previously, I’m not going to comment on every single argument that Sacca made. I’m going to cherry pick and give some quick, condensed responses.

  1. Twitter has failed to tell its own story — The idea here is that Twitter isn’t very good at explaining to Wall Street and other stakeholders what the company is up to or why it sometimes fails to achieve certain milestones. In my view, Sacca nails it. But I would add something important: Twitter is a broadcast platform, so there’s a deep irony that Twitter — the creator and shepherd of the interest graph — has trouble getting its own narrative out there.
  2. Almost one billion users have tried Twitter and not stuck around — This is a huge problem, but not in precisely the way Sacca suggests. Let me explain. I used to work at Zynga on some large mobile gaming franchises, including Words with Friends and Zynga Poker. The thing about great games is that they are great entertainment experiences; once people take part in these experiences, they can’t imagine their lives without them. Yes, I’m saying that these experiences become part of their lives. Twitter hasn’t cracked this nut yet. Twitter doesn’t yet feel like an environment, like a place I need to visit after I’ve been away for a while. So to become a truly first-class experience, Twitter needs to become tightly integrated with its users’ lives. This is what the platform has not yet done for the majority of its users.
  3. Twitter cannot afford to build the right things too slowly — This is brilliant. Simply dead on. If Twitter is going to become the company it can and should be, it has to build the right services quickly before another broadcast medium is crafted that more effectively services the itch that Twitter has to this point deftly addressed, that is, the desire to create, share and curate ideas.
  4. Using Twitter is too hard — I think Sacca is on the right track here, but let me split a very important hair. I agree that Twitter is not user-friendly for new users. I also agree that the platform overvalues noise over signal by making it very hard to sift through feeds in a way that feels intuitive to us. While I agree with those two points — and with Sacca’s preferred solution (a filtering technology) — sending tweets is incredibly easy. Users don’t have to reflect on the content of a tweet before sending it, nor do they have to adhere to a structure or format. Type and send. It couldn’t be any easier. And maybe that’s part of the problem. (As far as I can tell, no one has considered the possibility that Twitter’s fundamental “unit of communication”, the tweet, lacks the kind of structure that might make it easier to surface meaningful tweets to users at the right time and the right place.)
  5. Everything live is happening on Twitter — In a way, I think this is Sacca’s biggest blindspot. Lots of live content is certainly being pushed across the Twitter ecosystem. But that matters if, and only if, well, Twitter matters to the ordinary person. With its current MAU at 302 million, Twitter isn’t yet operating at the scale in needs to be. Once that happens, this issue will evanesce.
  6. Twitter needs a better live-event experience — This I agree with wholeheartedly. Sacca suggests that Twitter employ human editors to curate and enrich live event coverage, an idea certainly worth exploring and testing. Doing so creates a dedicated stream; however, once the event is over the dedicated stream will disappear and be replaced by suggestions for future events. In other words, Sacca wants Twitter to become the platform of record for transitory audience spaces — collections of thoughts, feelings, reactions and sentiments that live during an event and dissolve into the ether when the event is over. Super cool idea.
  7. Twitter should live in separate apps — This is a great idea. One small suggestion: Twitter should create revenue-positive partnerships with these other apps and services.
  8. Reinforce participation in Twitter by leveraging social actions — Sacca provides a number of very interesting ideas in this connection. For example, introducing a Hearts button (much like the one available on Instagram) would allow users to share their sentiments about specific tweets without retweeting them. Without diving too deep into this, I invite the reader to carefully consider the 7 different suggestions Sacca makes. I like some of them more than others, the Hearts button being one of my favorites. The only concern I have comes from my experience in social gaming: You don’t want to fiddle too much with a service that your users already love, for that risks alienating them. Of course, Twitter has the resources to test every change they make, so it’s quite possible they could adopt every one of Sacca’s suggestions without irritating existing users.
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