Over the past year, predicting Twitter’s demise due to a lack of business plan has been the topic de jour in the blogosphere. However, it’s recently become clear that Twitter faces a more immediate threat; its own success.
In my last post, Twipocalypse Now: Warnings of a Twitter Bubble, I observed that Twitter was at risk on several fronts, one of which being what I called “Twitter Fatigue” (TF). Since then, I’ve discovered that TF has been around in various forms for quite some time and that it has recently found a new sense of urgency among a growing chorus of bloggers. It now seems clear that not only is TF a malady spreading in parallel with Twitter’s own growth, but perhaps more ominously, if TF is not brought under control, it will undermine the entire Twitterverse itself.
Say, You Want a Twevolution…
If you’re like me, you’ll agree that Twittering is a very different experience today than it was only a few months ago. Even if it’s not, I guarantee that Twittering will be a different experience for you in the near future. This is because just as change is the one undeniable constant that defines evolution, change is also something that currently defines Twitter. And change is inevitable; for the more people who join the service, the more third party services that are introduced, the more people you follow can only result in one thing; a change in your Twitter experience.
Currently, change on Twitter manifests itself as this week’s hot new service or a new way to acquire new followers or a new meme that you absolutely must participate in least you reveal yourself as a newbie, or worse; uncool. What’s more, the rate of change is accelerating, driven by Twitter’s own growth which has reached an astounding 1,382% year-over-year. All of this is in turn driving the next wave of third party services, memes and publicity which is attracting the next (massive) wave of new users who will bring with them both their own ideas on how Twitter should work and who will also unleash a torrent of tweets of biblical proportions.
Ultimately, the tremendous pressure that the forces of change are placing on Twitter will make it unrecognizable. I’m not referring to Twitter’s interface, which indeed needs significant enhancements, but that as Twitter continues to evolve, seemingly right before our eyes, what Twitter actually is may be on the verge of changing too.
Keeping up is Hard to Do
So, if it’s hard to keep up with everything that happens to and in Twitter now, how can one expect to keep up if what Twitter is changes too? First, realize that none of this should actually come as a surprise. After all, much of the same thing continues to be said about Email. However, Twitter is a very different beast. These are just some of the factors that differentiate Twitter from Email:
- Twitter is fast
Admittedly, from a technical perspective, sending messages across the internet via Twitter is basically just as fast as email. However, from a functional perspective, Twitter is much faster as tweets don’t sit in the same type of queue as emails do. With Twitter, if you don’t read the message immediately, once it’s off your screen, it’s effectively gone. This creates an air of urgency that email does not have.
- Messages are shorter
While the length of emails can, and often do, seem to be infinite, tweets are mercifully shorter. The 140 character limit makes it very easy to read (although not necessarily understand) messages at a glance.
- The volume of tweets is enormous
While a typical email user receives over 450 emails per week. With Twitter, you could easily receive that number per hour.
- The number of users whom you receive tweets from is exponentially larger
While the typical email user may receive messages from a few hundred users per week, with Twitter, a user could be receiving tweets from hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of users every day.
Clearly, the sheer volume of messages can make Twitter tough for the uninitiated, but it’s also getting tougher for many “seasoned” users as well. Consider this:
- Although many “seasoned” users may have learned the fine art of unfollowing, odds are that they will probably be following significantly more people by virtue of the fact that they’ve been using the service longer. More people equals more tweets.
- Twitter lulls unsuspecting users into a false sense of security with its barebones interface.
Hello, hello, hello… Is There Anybody in There? Is There Anyone at Home?
Admit it, at first blush Twitter doesn’t look like much because it’s so barebones. That’s one of the things that makes Twitter so popular. It’s also one of the reasons why, once people “figure it out,” they can become proficient tweeters so quickly and why so many have fallen in love with the service. Even with its stability issues, Twitter is just so easy to use.
However, Twitter’s simplicity is also one of the reasons why people don’t get it either; there’s just not much there. People have grown accustomed to cluttered, control-filled interfaces. Twitter, by comparison, is almost child-like in its simplicity. Consequently, there are a lot of features and functionality that is sorely lacking; functionality that users desperately need to make Twitter more useful to them.
Rightly or wrongly, Twitter has mostly left the development of this functionality to their growing family of third part service providers. And while Twitter has recently introduced some new features, and more are on the way, that just adds to the confusion as much of it just duplicates the features of third party services which, in turn, duplicate the features of other third party services.
But We’re Never Gonna Survive Unless, We get a Little Crazy…
The fact that users have to go searching for all this functionality in the first place is a growing sore spot. While there are several great Twitter directories that attempt to compile and organize the various services (such as the Twitter Fan Wiki and Twitdom), users still have to take the following steps before they can put any of the services to use:
- Users must learn about these Directories
The sad truth is that many users simply don’t know that these resources even exist, and once they ind them, which ones should they use? Twitter should add a “Resources” link to it’s pages pointing to one or more of these directories.
- Users must comb through hundreds of entries
Some of these directories are massive, yet offer little useful information on what the individual services do, how they work and how well they do it.
- Users must experiment with new services
In order for the user to learn how a service works and how to make it work best for them; users must invest significant time and effort experimenting with each one.
All this is further complicated by the fact that many of these services look and work differently because Twitter does not require developers to adhere to any sort of Style Guide or standardization requirements, something that would simplify the experimentation and adoption process. At least when you use a desktop application, there is a reasonable expectation and likelihood that the app will follow certain usability conventions.
Meanwhile, as it’s becoming more common for tweeters to be following multiple hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands of people, users are also becoming inundated with a veritable tweet tsunami. For many, this flood of DMs, Retweets, @ Replies and just standard tweets is quickly becoming overwhelming. Add to that everything else that people have to contend with in their daily lives; from the economy to spam to taking the kids to soccer practice to email and Facebook, how can anyone expect to keep up with yet another layer of noise? At the end of the day, for an increasing number of users, there is just too much going on.
Burn Baby, Burn. Twitter Inferno
Collectively, these pressures are slowly, inexorably building. If a release is not found soon, the growing sense of Twitter Fatigue will inevitably result in a backlash that will force Twitter users to do the unthinkable; abandon Twitter for other services.
Fortunately, with the exception of Facebook which has its own user issues, no other service has the momentum that Twitter does. But momentum will only carry Twitter so far. If it is to prevent a potential mass exodus of users, Twitter needs to do a few things to restore vitality to a fatigued-user base. Among them, Twitter should:
- Not rely on the loyalty of users
The majority of Twitter’s users are early adopters or fast followers who have been very tolerant of Twitter’s lack of stability and features. However, as more and more late adopters join, their tolerance of Twitter Fatigue will be significantly lower. Since these users will make up the vast majority of Twitter’s user base in the near future, Twitter needs to begin taking action now in order to prevent backlash from the growing masses.
- Require Standardization
Twitter needs to ensure that late adopters experience the flattest learning curve possible. If Twitter continues to depend so heavily on third party services, they will need to require that these services adhere to style and usability standards and provide them with some sort of Application Interface Style and/or Usability Guide.
- Quickly Add Additional Features
Almost all new users begin their relationship with Twitter at Twitter.com. In order to provide these new users with the most fulfilling experience possible and thus lock them into the service before they become disgruntled and decide to leave, Twitter must add more robust features to the website. This will not only help users manage their followers, but help them manage how they follow people and the resulting tweet stream. While this may be seen as Twitter competing against their own third party developers, Twitter could minimize potential conflicts by developing partnerships with them.
- Develop Key Partnerships
Twitter needs to establish three types of partnerships:
- Partner with their Third Party Developers
This will allow Twitter to expedite the introduction of new features in order to offer a better user experience and make their growing user base happy. It will also strengthen their developer base and hedge against the Twipocalypse.
- Help Third Party Developers partner amongst themselves
This will minimize duplication of efforts and could lead to developers introducing more feature-rich services. Although risky and difficult, it could help lessen the confusion among users by cutting down on too many choices and strengthen the developers themselves.
- Partner with Established Companies
These partnerships can help Twitter to both stabilize and grow its platform. After all, it’s 2009; an unstable service won’t be tolerated much longer as late adopters and laggards join in mass.
- Partner with their Third Party Developers
Doctor, Doctor; Give Me the News. I Got a Bad Case of Filtering You
Although this action item should be part of the above list, Advanced Filtering would do so much to improve usability that is deserves special treatment here. The reason is simple; an unfiltered stream of tweets is just not an efficient way of managing or interacting with your followers and those whom you follow. It is a raw barrage of noise assaulting the user and does little to create a meaningful experience or help to build relationships.
Applications such as Tweetdeck are a good first step, but Tweetdeck (as advanced as it is) is still a first generation tool and, considering the filtering capabilities available to consumers circa 2009, woefully inadequate, at least for my needs. Also, as more late adopters and other less savvy users join Twitter, without a major redesign, Tweetdeck will quickly reach the end of its useful lifetime. As following multiple thousands of people becomes commonplace, in its present incarnation Tweetdeck simply does not present the load in a manner that those users will be able to handle.
Ultimately, what we need is a tool with robust filtering capabilities that can simultaneously filter based on a vast range of parameters and can differentiate from subtle variations or conditions. Such a tool, especially one that can learn my interests, would not only be a major advance in the micro-blogging space, but would go a long way towards helping Twitter evolve into Twitter 2.0, not to mention being a huge opportunity. Alas, for now I would be happy if a filter could just accomplish the following:
- Filter more parameters
As mentioned above, although Tweetdeck is currently the most advanced tool available, it still doesn’t do enough for me. Hopefully, its next incarnation will more capable.
- Filter out ReTweets or other duplicate tweets that you have already seen
Whether it’s a link or just a funny comment, once I’ve seen it, I don’t need to see it again and again and again. It’s no longer relevant and takes up valuable space in my tweet stream which could be filled with new information. It should also be able to track links shortened from different services, determine if they’re the same and if I’ve already seen it.
- Filtering specific types of content
There are many topics that are important to people I follow, but just aren’t that important to me personally. A filter that could cut down on tweets with content that I am not interested in, but allow the senders to remain in my stream for when they send relevant content, would be a very valuable productivity improvement.
- Filter for desired languages and character sets
I have followers who often tweet in many other languages. While I speak some Spanish, a (very) little Hebrew and can find a bathroom in Paris, until a good translation feature becomes available, I am unfortunately not benefiting from them.
- Threaded conversations
A common mistake most users make (myself included) is assuming that another user will understand which tweet I may be replying to, or that my tweet is a reply at all. Threading conversations would go a long way to helping me follow discussions. Although not threaded, Tweetie for the iPhone does allow me to track back through tweets, even if I’m not following any of those involved.
Ha. Ha. Ha. Stayin’ Alive
The cold reality is that for the end user, Twitter just isn’t scaling effectively and strain is beginning to show. The service will almost certainly not survive in its present form as it is simply too cumbersome and lacking in true usability to satisfy today’s more sophisticated internet users.
To be sure, micro-blogging is here to stay. However, if Twitter is to remain the market leader, it needs to do a lot more to prepare itself for both the coming onslaught of new users and the inevitable backlash which Twitter Fatigue will usher in.
Fortunately, the Twitter team is filled with smart people. I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.
How I Use Twitter at Volume
How to Follow A LOT of People on Twitter and Still be Engaging using Tweetdeck
10 Twitter Tools to Effectively Manage Your Followers
Twitter is Peaking
Readers Foresee Twitter’s Early Demise
Using Twitter in the Enterprise
Twitter Fatigue Tangents
Can Twitter Survive What is About to Happen to It?
On the Trail of Twitter’s Tipping Point
Twitter Now Growing at a Staggering 1,382 Percent
Email Fatigue, Overload, And How To Cope Better Than Ever
The Dangers of a Twitter Tsunami
OMG! Shut up about Twitter already
The Guide to Following Fewer People
Twitter Litter most followers don’t really follow you
How to form and grow your own Twitter group, for free
Friends versus Followers: Twitter’s elegant design for grouping contacts