Has Twitter ruined Twitter?


Robert Colvile is a freelance journalist and global fellow at PS21, formerly head of comment at Telegraph and news at BuzzFeed UK. He tweets at @rcolvile.

Over the past few weeks, Twitter’s been all over Twitter. It launched the new (and impressive) Moments tool; it got a new CEO (well, half of one); hefired 336 people; and pretty much everyone started talking about what was going right and wrong with the company, not least after reading this impassioned piece on Medium by umair haque.

I don’t think Twitter’s doomed at all. But I do think Twitter as we’ve known itis dying. And the verdict will be both murder and suicide — on the part of both Twitter’s management and its keenest users.

Twitter became popular, in essence, because it was where the cool people came to hang out. Celebrities and journalists came to talk to their fans, and each other.

For British journalists like me, for example, it was a godsend — it provided a way for us all to bitch and gossip and stroke each other’s egos in a way that we hadn’t had since the move out of Fleet Street scattered the big newspapers to the four winds. Even better — it turned out there were quite a few people out there who didn’t actually work in journalism, but were still just as funny and clever as us hacks, and often even more so. It was like being one of those great pubs where you’re pretty much always guaranteed to bump into someone you know.

What changed, as Umair and other disillusioned tweeters have said, was the signal to noise ratio. Partly, this is down to the problem of abuse that Umair identified — the way that the seemingly infinite horde of trolls and zealots and bores would intrude into conversations or shout you down (especially if you were a woman).

But there was a stylistic change as well. Journalists, and news organisations in general, noticed that Twitter was a good way to pick up traffic. Well, not traffic as such: a report back in January claimed that it’s responsible for driving less than 1 per cent of traffic to sites, compared with roughly 25 per cent for Facebook. Still, Twitter links remained important because it was a good way to reach an influential audience — plus, people often go on to repost the same links on Facebook, where the traffic magic happens.

Gradually, over time, people worked out the hierarchy of attention. A tweet like this wouldn’t do that well:

A picture would do better:

As would a screenshot:

Or best of all, a bit of movement:

Twitter has always been a place for link-dumping: on a busy day, you’d drop in the pieces you’d written or edited then get back to your deadlines without stopping for a chat. But on top of that, it’s now a visual experience as much as a written one.

I was talking to a friend about this — one with an order of magnitude more followers than me — and he mentioned that it was increasingly rare for a tweet to take off without a picture attached. Many news organisations now actively order their staffers to include them when promoting pieces; meanwhile, Twitter’s own links pull in pictures even without you asking them to. But all that in turn makes the conversation harder to pick out, without carefully curating your feed: it’s buried within a mountain of tweets all screaming “SHARE ME!”.

It isn’t just the users who are powering this shift: it’s Twitter’s management as well.

Twitter’s problem is that it had crafted an invaluable public space — one which emerged almost by accident, with the users themselves coming up with many of the conventions, such as RTs or hashtags, that gave the service its power.

But the new economic model isn’t about offering a service — it’s about growth. Remorseless, exponential, competitor-trouncing growth. (I get into the reasons in my new book, out in April — pre-order your copy here…) Signing up two million people in a quarter wasn’t something to shout about — it was a sign you were lagging behind.

Twitter couldn’t be a great pub conversation and hit its targets for audience and revenue growth. It had to become a public meeting hall, even if that meant that it was full of people shouting over each other, or carrying around giant advertising billboards.

To see where Twitter’s going, consider the Moments service. This is a really fascinating idea — to aggregate the best content on each separate micro-story and make it seamlessly available. To borrow the pub metaphor, it’s like having someone sitting in the corner who’s actually saying sober, writing down all the funniest lines and editing out the dross (exactly what Boswell did for Johnson, in fact).

I wanted to learn more about Moments, so took a look at the guidelines and principles Twitter has published. And what leapt out was this sentence at the bottom:

In other words, just like those media brands, Twitter sees Twitter as a visual medium: it thinks people want less talk, and more video.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s almost certainly the right decision: one of the big trends on the web is that images are eating text, and video is eating images. If Twitter wants to be one of the big boys like Facebook or Snapchat — and that’s certainly what its investors want — then it has to follow the big trends. The problem is that the bigger it gets, the more packed with images and GIFs and self-promotion and shouting, the further it moves away from what made it so attractive in the first place.

This article originally appeared on Medium on October 22, 2015. 

PS21 is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views are the author’s own.

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