Twitter Still Has What Everyone Else Wants

“Five years later, it seems like the real question is, What has Twitter made of itself?”

Twitter may have problems, but Josh Topolsky’s arguments in “The End of Twitter” miss an important point: What Twitter has already accomplished with social connections — matching relative strangers with similar interests — is vastly different, and arguably more difficult, than what Facebook has done, which is connect you with people you already know.

Twitter does one thing well, and it’s more valuable and harder to replicate than he gives credit.

I like Facebook for what it offers. It’s a connection to family, friends and acquaintances who I’ve known throughout my life. A Twitter connection occasionally evolves into a Facebook friend. And because of this, I’ve seen more newsy, Twitter-like posts in my timeline. All of it is easier to follow than what’s happening on Twitter.

But Facebook hasn’t successfully replaced what Twitter offers, which is the spark of a connection with people you don’t know yet — and it has failed many times to bridge this gap. One example: Facebook has tried to replicate Twitter’s value for journalists and authors by letting people create “public pages” for themselves, but it’s an awkward experience for everyone involved. I’ve seen many status updates where a professional journalist friend invites me to “like” their public page, so I can follow their professional updates. Is this because they’re too embarrassed to post self-promotional content in their normal timeline? (Flaw #1) And now being asked to follow two versions of the same person? (Flaw #2) Topolsky suggests that Facebook could easily replicate Twitter, but none of their attempts thus far suggest they’re able to create an entirely different social network on top of the one they’ve already built — one that’s based on intimate connections in a semi-private space. The same goes for Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and (yeah) Peach — none of them make strangers as directly accessible as Twitter has. And while these other social apps have grown tremendously, none of them expose us to the worlds outside our existing friend networks so successfully.

Topolsky is right that Twitter needs to make some serious changes if it wants to take better advantage of the network it created. Simplifying the user experience is one way to do that, and a huge part of that user experience is figuring out how to filter out the spam, hate, and vitriol that has caused so many people to leave Twitter entirely. If Twitter is a matchmaker for strangers with mutual interests, then it has to become a more aggressive host and take a stand against (or at least burying) bullying and harassment.

And if Twitter wants to get the most value out of the interest graph it still controls, it needs to make the environment welcoming for people who want to post about their interests, whenever they are moved to do so. Currently on Twitter, if feels like we have to adjust our conversations to fit whatever the day’s big news event might be. And if that’s the case, connecting with people who share my interests is worthless, because we all have to talk about Kanye West right now anyway.

These are big asks for Twitter, because I don’t know of any other interest-based social network that has 100% solved these problems. But what Twitter has already accomplished is significant, and I see no viable alternative that poses a threat.

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Photo by laughingsquid