Is Twitter Getting Fat?


In 2003 Hip Hop star Lauryn Hill released her ‘MTV Unplugged 2.0’ album. A controversial move, since she performed somewhat unfinished songs with a guitar, rather than a six piece band. However, according to her own musings during the concert this was a conscious choice. Hill said that having the responsibility of supporting a six piece band and living up to an iconic public image ‘killed her creativity’ because ‘she could not be a real person anymore’. I guess Twitter is facing a similar dilemma. The company is facing pressure to dress up (functionality and business models), but it may not be wise to give in.

I love Twitter. The nice thing about it is that it is lean. Tweets are small. The web interface is minimal. Twitter is not a huge company and it is actually losing money. There is no advertisement on the Twitter page. Twitter listens to its end users. It gives the community of end users space to invent uses for it and sometimes incorporates those uses in their interface (shown beautifully in this TED video). It gives 3rd party developers access to much of its data, which is simple in form and rich in content. This has led to many cool 3rd party twitter applications and mashups (like these). In the four years twitter exists (some history, history infographic) it has always given user satisfaction priority over economic gain. In short: Twitter did everything right.

However, about two weeks ago, Twitter investor Fred Wilson remarked that some of the applications in the twitter eco system were simply filling holes in the services feature list (Wilsons post).This caused a lot of stir among 3rd party developers. At the first Twitter developer conference, CEO Evan Williams remarked soothingly that Twitter has ‘always been about developers’ and ‘twitter is the eco system’. But the remarks may have been of little avail. At least, some third party developers like tweet photo started to stress their ‘independence’ from Twitter right away. The response is not surprising since Twitter seems to be changing business strategy; or tone at least. Within a couple of weeks Twitter announced filtered tweets (tweets selected to have a high expected impact) and promoted tweets (a sort of AdSense – the Google advertisement system, for Twitter) as new features, and it acquired the company behind a successful iphone app : Tweetie. So Twitter is definitely ‘growing’.

Let me discus the hole-filling problem shortly. With the Twitter eco system, Fred Wilson refers to all the applications and mash-ups that have been developed by 3rd party developers. Some of these applications are so much at the heart of the way users use Twitter that they would be good features for Twitter itself. Examples are tweet photo (a service allowing you to quickly share uploaded photos) and url shortening (allowing you to share a link with only a few characters). This is what Wilson called a ‘hole-filler’. I think he is right, although I understand the sensitivity of the terminology he used. The term ‘hole-filler’ suggests that Twitter had always considered these functionalities as ‘features’ but did not yet implement it. In practice though, these services have often generated a new (unanticipated), use for twitter, thus contributing to Twitters success and giving it its current face. They have become ‘holes’ because they were used so much. So rather than calling them feature holes, Wilson could have referred to 3rd party software as feature visionaries or feature outposts.

There are two scenarios in which Twitter to incorporate features that have been invented by feature outposts. First, Twitter could acquire the outpost company. This is how Twitter got search, by acquiring summize . Although some 3rd party developers may want to stay independent, the acquiring strategy is relatively harmless, in the sense that the developers get some credit for the value they have been creating for twitter. A second scenario is that Twitter could build its own version of the service, like it announced to do with URL shortening. In that case Twitter is competing with the 3rd party developers that helped it getting big, which is disturbing. At least as Williams acknowledges makes the relationship between the company and its external developers more complex. Twitter may not have a choice though. There are more than 10 serious url-shortening services – should it acquire them all? As far as I can judge Twitter is not competing aggressively with parties in it eco system.

But, should Twitter incorporate the ‘obvious’ candidates for features in its service? In line with a GigaOm post by Matthew Ingram, I would argue that having only the bare necessities in its feature set would do Twitter good. Twitter has striped social media to its bare essence (social atoms) and has become big because of this choice (despite early skepticism). This simplicity makes it easy to imagine ways to enhance it, and easy to put it to other use. That is why the twitter eco-system has become so big. For users this gives a flexibility that can never be delivered by one size fits all systems like Face book. Every niche can have its own combination of tools. Facebook can never offer such flexibility while staying usable. Also building external applications is easier if the tool is easier. A developer within Facebook will always need to deal with a rather intricate privacy policy, while Twitter is simple and stupid. Finally the simplicity and the constraints of the Twitter service (even its message length constraint) spark a lot of creativity by users (@syntax #use) so that they really change the way the social web works. So to stay ahead of the web, it should remain simple and lean.

One could argue that to become truly mainstream, Twitter should be a more extensive and richer environment, in particular on the web; rather than the geeky medium it is right now. You could also argue, that it makes no sense to have a company that does everything right but does not make enough money to support itself (and its infrastructure) in the long run. I guess this makes sense. So twitter may need offer more features, and it may need to offer promoted tweets even if these threaten the integrity of the channel (see Dave Pell’s post on this). But I believe it would be a mistake to become a feature giant; Facebook and Google alike. I think it would kill Twitter as an innovative power and fresh wind in the media landscape. It will lose steam. It would kill the lean, geeky & powerful Twitter that I love so much. This may be the way for Twitter to survive, but the survivor may not be Twitter anymore. So: if I could be Evan Williams DJ for a day, I know what record I am bringing….


3 Responses to “Is Twitter Getting Fat?”

  1. Funny how almost a year later, the struggle of Twitter enters a new chapter. See this Giga OM post.

  1. 1 UX Nightmare « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog
  2. 2 Reading Dhiraj Murthy’s Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog

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