Early adopters of Google+ have declared that Twitter is now “obsolete” and that they are “bored” using Twitter. Most suggestions for improvement are a list of Google+ features that Twitter doesn’t have.
Yet, even while Twitter’s own CEO, Dick Costolo, has maintained that Twitter will remain simple, the company’s founder and executive chairman Jack Dorsey recently let go four key product people from Twitter, indicating some kind of change is in the works. So what’s @Jack to do? What does the future of Twitter look like?
Taking Measured Risks
Facebook is actually informative on this front. One of the things that founder Mark Zuckerberg and crew have done outstandingly well is to know what and what not to integrate from competitors. They’ve evolved their vision, but instead of jumping on every trend, they’ve found ways to increase by incorporating the best innovations of their competitors into a holistic vision that’s kept Facebook rising.
When Facebook had 12 million uniques thanks to nearly every college user in America using the service and MySpace had 80 million uniques it was a bold move to open up the site to the outside world. In hindsight, it may have seemed risk-free, but it could have killed the whole feel of Facebook. They moved slowly, adding companies, high school students and ultimately went fully public. It wasn’t a given that this wouldn’t destroy the closed, private and wonderful service Zuckerberg had created for college students.
When Twitter became a significant force, Facebook tried to obtain the youngish company. A deal was never reached and Facebook ended up incorporating the status update into the newsfeed — which actually made the newsfeed more attractive than it ever would have been otherwise. Again, a great move that fit in with the evolving vision of Facebook as a “sharing platform”
But it’s also instructive to look at the things Facebook did not do. To compete with MySpace, lots of people thought Facebook should offer some level of profile customization (definitely controversial), but even more thought they should launch a music service. Facebook toyed with the idea by briefly allowing users to put some apps on their profile pages, and they gave priority status to iLike, a music service that let you create playlists. I’d heard rumors at the time that Facebook had actually built a full customization platform for profiles that they never launched. Just this month, Facebook decided to allow users to put images and videos into comments (something that probably would have been too MySpace-y back in the day). Facebook knew when to add feature at the right time. And that music service? Well, it may still be coming.
What This Means for Twitter
So what does this teach us? It’s difficult to extract a lesson or set of rules from these examples. It’s hard to know how to evolve your service, and it’s hard to say what Twitter should do to continue its growth trajectory. I think the answer lies in trying to step back and understand what’s the real value you give to your users. How can your service develop to understand that mission without following every trend that rules the day?
In Twitter’s case, is the 140 character constraint really a benefit or is it a leftover artifact of the text-message infrastructure that smart phones have replaced? As pundits and users, we can all make our demands about what we want from Twitter, but that perhaps only tells us about our own personal biases. Twitter will unquestionably do better to examine its own data to appreciate its own user behavior.
Then they can look at those numbers in the context of competitors’ numbers that are public. Who’s driving more engagement, where and how?
You might say, you and I don’t know jack about Twitter. Only @Jack knows jack about Twitter.
Depending on what he learns, he’ll make the tough decision of what to change and what to keep the same. Maybe he’ll test, iterate, analyze and revise. He’s already decided he needs a new product staff, so change seems to be coming.