Making Twitter relevant

Twitter relevantTwitter is boring. It’s a random stream of content, mostly promotional. It’s great for celebrities broadcasting to their fans, but for the rest of us, it needs help. And with the CEO gone and the company disappointing investors, it’s time for a change.

I’m not talking about financial engineering, CEO candidates, or “sell it to Google.” Whoever runs Twitter must face the same problem: Twitter isn’t relevant. It’s no fun to read, and nobody clicks. This is the root of both the user problem and the advertising revenue problem. So I set out to answer one question: what would get people to participate in Twitter? I would like to optimize the three things that make Facebook so successful and engaging: Conversations, sharing, and click-throughs to Web content.

Let’s start by listing Twitter’s major differentiating features and ask, what should we keep and what should we change?

  1. Posts cannot exceed 140 characters.
  2. Posts are public for anyone to see.
  3. Anyone can follow anyone.
  4. The stream includes all posts from those you follow in reverse chronological order.
  5. Marketers can promote tweets to followers, causing those tweets to appear higher in the stream.
  6. Hashtags allow you to follow topics and events.
  7. The display of each post shows the count of retweets and favorites.
  8. Posts can include photos, video, or links.

(For the purpose of this discussion, I ignore private accounts and blocking followers, which are not relevant to the mainstream Twitter experience.)

I start with this assumption: if you keep these features exactly as they are, Twitter will still suck. Something must change. I’d change the stream.

Twitter will continue to suck until the order of tweets changes.

We’ve all followed lots of people. Watching the sum total of their tweets stream by is like sitting in the midst of a crowded aviary. It’s incoherent cacophony. On any popular topic or hashtag, mindless drivel pervades the tweets. Twitter must restore relevance to its stream.

Crucially, I don’t believe we should change the public nature of Twitter (features 2 and 3 in my list). I’m not interested in duplicating Facebook’s mutual-friend dynamic. Facebook is where you talk to your friends about interesting things. If Twitter were to take my advice, Twitter would become where you talk to anybody about interesting things.

This requires one key piece of smarts. Twitter must develop intelligence about the content of tweets. This requires sophisticated cognitive analysis, but it’s clear from how Google and Facebook work that such intelligence is possible. Assume for a moment that Twitter actually understood what’s in a tweet. To begin with, it could immediately recognize spam and stop showing tweets from spammers (as Luciano Palma* suggests). But more importantly, it could create features like these:

  • Separate tweetstreams that show tweets about politics, sports, celebrities, technology, and other topics. In each such stream, Twitter would float to the top the tweets that have generated conversation, click-throughs, retweets, favorites, and other activity. (David Cooperstein* agrees that verticalized feeds would be an improvement.)
  • Separate tweetstreams that follow a specific topic you’re interested in (say, biking or hurricanes), with the most relevant tweets at the top. If you created such a topic, you could promote it on your Twitter (or Facebook) and potentially create your own popular space of interest. (Julie Ask* made a suggestion similar to this. It’s also among the many ideas that Chris Sacca suggests.)
  • Separate tweetstreams that follow, not only a hashtag like Apple or KatyPerry, but other tweets associated with that hashtag. A relevance ordering here would eliminate the drivel.
  • Tweetstreams that follow events (Twitter is working on this; they call them “Moments“)

In my fantasy version of Twitter, you could select any of these Tweetstreams and make them tabs on your Twitter display. (You could optionally include the “classic” tweetstream with the original comprehensive chronological display.) These streams would solve the relevance problem, because now you’d get an interesting look at what’s happening on a topic or space you liked. And of course, advertisers could place promoted tweets at the top of any of these topics.

Now that I’ve solved the relevance problem, I’ll solve the click-through problem.

Twitter needs to change the display of tweets. Rather than a stream of bare tweets, I’d change the display to feature, visually, more conversations and links. Here’s the one place where I’d steal from Facebook. When you post a link in Facebook, it grabs a graphic and the start of the text; this stimulates click-throughs. And I like the way Facebook displays dialogue. I’d do the same here. If someone you follow posts a tweet that generates conversation, you should see that conversation, even if you don’t follow the others who are talking. This feature would stimulate replies and feature them. And it would stimulate click-throughs and feature them. That would make both the content and the promoted tweets/ads more engaging.

Here are some other ideas from my friends:

  • Manish Thakur* suggested increasing the character limit. I agree that 140 is too cramped, I think 250 is about right.
  • Charles Kreitzberg* suggested aggregating Tweets using automated sentiment analysis. This could create new topics that would fit into my framework.
  • Tina Peploe Murphy* and Manish Thakur* suggested lifting the restriction on how many accounts you can follow.
  • Frank Eliason* suggested re-opening Twitter’s API to developers.
  • Nate Elliott says they should build and launch a slew of new products.
  • Olivier Blanchard* suggested hiring Donald Trump as CEO. (If this would get him off the political stage it might almost be worth it.)

While I am currently available to be Twitter’s new CEO, I don’t think I’m the best choice. However, I’ll leave this here and if they want my advice, I would be happy to help. They, and you, can follow me on Twitter as jbernoff.

*Where you see a name with an asterisk in this post, the comments come from the discussion I initiated on (of course) Facebook, where I asked people what they would do if they were the CEO of Twitter.

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  1. You say this: “Twitter is boring. It’s a random stream of content, mostly promotional. It’s great for celebrities broadcasting to their fans, but for the rest of us, it needs help”

    I’m not having that experience on Twitter. I actually get a lot of useful stuff from it. Conversations, useful links from friends, etc. Here’s what I think is going on for you (just my guess) – you have too many followers, and you’re not following a list.

    That’s how I make Twitter work, anyway. I use Tweetbot, and instead of following my main twitter stream, I follow a list of just the people I want to interact with (around 200 people). Much more manageable!

    One other thing – the link to your Twitter account is broken. FYI.

    Thanks for the interesting blog!

    1. Absolutely agree! Promote the use of lists.

      Most of Twitter’s core structure is built around the initial premise that we access Twitter through SMS text (remember those days?). A few changes could be made, such as changing 140 to 250, although I like the brevity of 140 characters, and better threading of conversations. But the core product is everything that Facebook is not, and that’s for the better.

      Lists are great. A list for news, from actual news outlets. Lists for friends and colleagues so we get input on work and family issues. Lists for specific, personal, categories (I keep Journalism, Marketing, Startup, Technology, among others). And hashtags handle ad hoc interests or groups, check out the tweetchats.

      Twitter has wonderful strengths, let’s not ruin them, maybe just make them easier to understand.

      1. Lists don’t allow you to separate Josh’s personal tweets from Josh’s political tweets from Josh’s technology tweets.

        Also, asking people to make lists puts the onus on the user. Twitter should solve this problem for them.

  2. I’m just falling in love with Twitter and keep hearing how it’s on its way out.

    Like the commenter above, I don’t think Twitter is boring. I think it’s a great entertainment medium (which is primarily how I use it) but I think it’s also the most social of the networks and I’m fascinated by the giant, public conversation. Surely someone can harness that. If Twitter lacks relevance, it’s because marketers are using it wrong. It’s not for broadcasting; it’s for engaging your audience, getting them to interact with you and for you. Maybe that makes it difficult to use, but not irrelevant.

    I LOVE the character limit. It forces people to be concise. I’ve seen some really impressive use of those 140 characters. I have no idea why that number was selected, but I think that increasing the character limit will make Twitter much less interesting. And it will increase the bullshit for sure!

    That said, your notion of topical tweetstreams is interesting. I envision a Twitter-meets-Pinterest environment and that would be very useful and fun.

    It’s true that I seldom click through, unless the tweet is from an entity that I already enjoy. So I suppose Twitter is a good secondary channel, another way to be accessible to your followers, another way to pop into their days.

    Interesting stuff to think about.

    1. Hi Meg — The 140-character limit is because SMS text had a character limit of 160 back in 2006 when Twitter started up (since raised to 200 characters or so). SMS text was how people connected on Twitter on mobile, pretty much pre-smartphones and apps. The extra 20 characters were used for account ID and other Twitter-specific actions (replies, DMs, etc.).

  3. I created a Twitter account, I lasted 40 minutes and deleted it.

    Just like the Facebook account I deleted, Twitter is just pointless and full of pointless bullshit, by narcissistic bullshit artists.

    Marketing has no use to me either. I use advertisements to tell me NOT to purchase from that particular pedlar.
    As it is, my computer is completely ad free since 2011, due to AdBlock software screwed down hard.