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By Thomas Baekdal - November 2015

Not Even Twitter Understands Twitter

One of the problems we have always had with Twitter is that Twitter itself doesn't know what it is, or what it is doing. We saw the latest example of this earlier this week, when they change the 'favorite' icon with a heart.

Suddenly you are no longer favoring tweets. Now you are liking them.

In the bigger scheme of things, it's just a word. But it once again illustrates how completely out of touch Twitter is, and has always been, when it comes to understanding how people use it.

The problem is that there is a huge difference between liking something with a heart and favoriting it. When you favorite a tweet, you mostly do so for your own consumption. It is a way for you to tell yourself that this tweet is something you want to get back to, or remember for later use.

A heart, however, is a statement of endorsement. You are saying that you like the tweet.

Actually, we have three ways this could be done:

Twitter apparently doesn't see it this way. As they say:

We are changing our star icon for favorites to a heart and we'll be calling them likes. We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers. You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite.

The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it.

So, their definition of a favorite is entirely different from how the rest of us see it. And they are not just doing this for future tweets. This is merely a UI change, so every tweet that you had favored in the past will now show up as a heart/like.

For instance, Sarah Marshall favored one of my tweets last month. Back then it merely meant she had bookmarked it for future reference. She wasn't actually endorsing it or necessarily agreeing with it (she might like it too, but I don't know that).

Favoriting a tweet didn't mean it was her favorite (as Twitter apparently believes)

Now, however, she hearts it. That's a different statement.

This is a very benign example. Think about how many times that, especially journalists, scientists, or media people have favorite something that was important for them to know, but that wasn't something they liked.

As Joanne Stocker, Managing Editor of Grasswire tweeted:

In the past, we would favor tweets like that because we used them for our work. Now we can't... because we are not going to heart a terrorist attack.

Twitter never really 'got it'

This, of course, is not new. Twitter has never understood how people use it. Every single time Twitter has tried to bring in new people, it has done so contrary to what existing Twitter users considered to be valuable.

Let me illustrate just how silly the evolution of Twitter is.

Back when it was first launched, Twitter's founders didn't envision it as this massive communication channel that we have today. Instead, they merely thought of it as a place for people to post their current status.

It was the age-old concept of "what are you doing today".

For instance, here are the first tweets from Twitter's current CEO and founder, Jack Dorsey.

In the beginning, this was all Twitter was. It was a rather lame channel for mostly superficial chitchat.

People, however, soon realize that Twitter could be so much more. We could use Twitter as a highly efficient platform for posting far more valuable tweets, focusing on keeping people up to date and linking to more important things.

So we, the people, started changing what Twitter was and the first big change was that we started linking to things.

This came as a complete surprise to Twitter, because it was designed to have a limit of 140 characters (to fit SMS messaging), and posting a link meant that the majority of the characters would be taken up by the link itself.

For instance, imagine that I wanted to post this:

Notice the character count? There wasn't enough space since the link itself was 92 characters long.

This was how Twitter used to work.

So did Twitter learn? Eventually, yes. Today we have links and a tweet system that can manage links, but it took them years to get to that point. For most of these years, links were handled almost entirely by 3rd party services.

At first it was very simple short-url services, like that allowed you to shorten long links so that they could be tweeted. And it was the third party Twitter clients that first started adding these as a feature. So when you tweeted a link, the 3rd party Twitter client would automatically shrink it using or another service to fit the 140 character limit.

For Twitter, years went by while they were completely oblivious to how everyone were using their service.

It was the same story with photos. This also came as a surprise to Twitter.

Hey, are you posting a picture? But... but... but... this is a text messaging service?

And again, it was the third party services that first started to turn image links into actual image thumbnails. Twitter was way behind on this.

Or what about hashtags. This is a brilliant concept invented by Chris Messina, which allowed people to group tweets from many different people into a single collection.

Today, of course, it's everywhere. Today, when we see things like what happened at Ferguson, we see millions of people tweeting, commenting, discussing it, all using #ferguson.

Or if people are attending a conference, they will use a specific hashtag to group all the stories together. And this serves as an invaluable source of information for all of us who can't attend in person.

Here, for instance, is a collection of tweets from the latest INMA conference using #INMAec. It's absolutely brilliant.

Or what about retweets? These too came as a surprise to Twitter. Remember how we used to write 'RT: [...]' before a retweet? The reason we did this was because Twitter itself was never designed for re-sharing. So, we wrote 'RT:' and copy/pasted the original tweet instead.

It took Twitter years to finally understand this behavior and to build it directly into their system. But even today it doesn't really work right. Try quote-retweeting something and you will notice how incredibly inconsistent Twitter handles it.

Twitter never got it, and still doesn't understand it.

Twitter still thinks people are using Twitter to chitchat. The reality, though, is that most of the value that Twitter creates is from people who are communicating instead. We are not chatting on Twitter. We are communicating. And we are communicating about things and topics around us.

That's a very different thing.

Think about a tweet like this one from Conrad Hackett, researcher at PEW. This is not chitchatting. This is not for people who don't have an intent and are just bored. This is not for people who are just on a break. This appeals to an entirely different type of situation, for people with an intent and with a far more defined interest.

We see this so clearly when we look at social sharing. If you look at sites like BuzzFeed, you will notice how almost all their social traffic is coming from Facebook, with Twitter barely registering. This should not come as a surprise to you.

When people use Facebook, they are often on a break and do not have any specific interest or intent. So the snack like content that BuzzFeed produces is perfect for that moment.

But people don't use Twitter like that. We use Twitter to stay up-to-date about the things that are important to us. You don't use Twitter if you are just bored. We use Twitter because we are interested.

On this site, for instance, Twitter refers three times as much traffic as Facebook.

This is the real power of Twitter. It's a somewhat focused, very quick and very efficient communication channel, which serves as a place we use to keep up-to-date about the things and people we care about, on a more enlightened bases.

But Twitter doesn't understand this. Twitter still thinks it is the chitchat channel it was to begin with.

This is probably also why Twitter thinks a 'favorite' means that 'it's your favorite tweet' and not 'I'm bookmarking this because it is interesting to me'.

You see the difference?

Twitter moments

Another place where we so clearly see this is with every single new feature Twitter has added over the past three years. Every single one of them has been designed for people who didn't know what they cared about (the Facebook moment), rather than the far more valued interaction that we use Twitter for.

The latest example (besides the new heart) is Twitter Moments.

It's designed to appeal to new users who don't know what to follow (i.e. people with no intent), by, as Twitter says:

Moments helps you find the best of Twitter as easily as tapping an icon - regardless of who you follow. Just visit the new tab called Moments, where you will discover stories unfolding on Twitter.

The concept isn't bad... until you realize how completely random it is. Instead of using Twitter Moments to identify the what people's true intent, it's focused the same way as Facebook by trying to give you as much of everything as possible.

But it doesn't stop there. The real problem is in how it works. As Twitter says:

Notice something missing? Yep... there are no links!!

Twitter has decided that Twitter Moments should just be simple text and images, and have removed all links from the original tweets.

What the frak??

Instead of curating tweets that links to bigger stories, Twitter has designed this as a place where you can just snack on random tweets without ever paying much attention. There is no intent here. It's just random views.

You know what's also missing? There are no follow buttons in clear sight.

And we see this with every single thing Twitter is doing. Instead of focusing on driving intent, all campaigns are based on this type of shallow 'let's just have some snacks'-like behavior that we see on Facebook and on sites like BuzzFeed:


They are no links, no deeper story, it's just chitchatting! They are trying to go back to this:

Even after almost ten years, Twitter still hasn't got a clue as to why people use Twitter. They don't understand what makes Twitter unique.

The hearts

This, of course, brings us to the new heart/like system that is replacing favorites. And it shouldn't come as a surprise to you. Again, look at Twitter Moments.

Here people are just browsing around and reacting to whatever that comes their way. To favorite something is far too serious an action for that type of behavior. A far simpler and snack like behavior is to just double click on a tweet to 'heart' it.

Which means it now works like this:

You see how that fits perfectly into their focus on chitchatting? Twitter even says so in its campaign for it:

Show how you feel without missing a beat pretty much means: Just react; don't think.

Mind you, I'm not against making something faster and more efficient. That's great. But that's not the message Twitter is sending.

The investors

The main problem for Twitter, of course, is that it is still entirely focused on scale, a situation demanded by its investors who doesn't like that is only worth 18% of Facebook. And Twitter is currently running at a massive loss.

Last year it had a revenue of $1.4 billion, but it's operational costs was $1.9 billion. That's a loss of a staggering half a billion dollars ... much of it is due to increased advertising spending.

It's just insane.

What's even more insane is that Twitter has 320 million active users. For any other company that would be a massive audience, but, of course, it is only 21% of Facebook.

So, Twitter's investors are pressuring it to be 'more like Facebook' at every moment, and is exactly what Twitter is doing. But the problem is that Twitter is suffering from the same Silicon Valley Syndrome.

It believes that the only way to earn more money is to scale up and become even bigger. Look at every new feature it has introduced over the past couple of years. All of them are designed to appeal to newcomers, often at the expense of the value to its existing audience.

And it's trying to drive more reach, exposure and engagement through ever shallower forms of interactions.

The problem with Twitter, of course, is that it's far too limited for that. The 140 character limit prevents people from really sharing 'whatever'. It forces people to think first, because it has to fit such a condensed space.

But it has a plan for that as well, because they plan to allow people to post more than 140 characters, to "reach a more mainstream audience".

Yeah... let's be even more like Facebook. Let's forget about the focus, the effectiveness, the amazing usefulness and the intent that people love today, and let's just focus on mainstream snacking at scale.

Also, have you noticed how incredibly bad Twitter advertising is at matching people's intent? They do targeting as well as any other, but the intent is never about why I'm on Twitter.

This is the ad that I see right now, but the people I follow are almost entirely from the media/marketing industry, as well as VCs, important startups, and scientists. Why would I be interested in a mobile game when I'm using Twitter?

These are the kind of ads that work on Facebook because people there rarely have a specific intent. They are just having a break. On Twitter? That's not what I'm here for.

The future of Twitter

There is no question that Twitter is hard to understand for newcomers. Twitter is an odd place that is only truly valuable once you figure out what you care about and who is worth following within that focus.

For instance, if you are a scientist and you are just coming to Twitter, it looks like this incredibly noisy place. But then you come across amazing lists like this one from Dr. Paige Brown Jarreau of '110 Awesome Women Scientist Tweeters'.

You start to follow some of them and suddenly the world of Twitter opens up to you, and start to see why we love it so much.

Twitter is, by far, the best place to stay on top of things you care about, and it still is. And this is true regardless of who you are and what you are interested in.

The problem is that you need to have an intent in order for Twitter to be valuable to you, which means that we need to help people discover their real intent from the very first day.

Twitter is almost useless if you don't know what you care about. It's hopeless as a channel for just coming across random tweets. There is no perspective, no backstory, no nothing. Without intent, people don't understand the value.

The problem is that Twitter is moving away from this. It is trying to appeal to newcomers by making twitter more shallow and random. More mainstream, as they would say.

Will this work? Well, maybe. But that's not the Twitter that we know today. But I also don't see it. The more Twitter tries to be like Facebook, the more people will just use, you know, Facebook.

Why use Twitter at all if it's just like Facebook?

In theory, there is nothing wrong with Twitter being a channel for social snacks that people just have fun with. But we already have so much of that.

So, the future of Twitter is ... problematic.

It's pretty clear to see where Twitter is heading, and even why it's heading in that direction. It's also pretty clear that doing this will make Twitter less valuable to Twitter's existing audience.

Mind you, I still love Twitter. I don't heart it, but I do love it. It's still a wonderful channel to stay up-to-date with the specific things you care about.

We have lost our 'favorites', but maybe we will get a 'save' button one day. And it's now even harder to build value, simply because the intent of our audiences are being disrupted by Twitter's increase focus on randomness.

And if Twitter Moments start to really gain traction, we will lose all the important links which will pretty much destroy Twitter as a valuable way to connect beyond just the tweet.

The real thing that makes Twitter so valuable is how the stream stays clean. But Twitter has already started fiddling with that as well. If Twitter were to one day redesign the stream to work like the NewsFeed on Facebook... well... let's just say I would be grumbling for at least a month.

Update: And this is now what Twitter is experimenting with, as reported by Motherboard.

A spokesperson confirmed via email that [a non chronological timeline] is "an experiment. We're continuing to explore ways to surface the best content for people using Twitter." Presumably, Twitter is working with algorithms similar to the ones Facebook uses to order items on your News Feed.

Note: image via @deeztayl

For now, Twitter is still awesome, and a heart doesn't really change that. In fact, the heart is a nice feature. But the trend of where Twitter is heading is troubling.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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