Imagine you edit a website, and the president of the United States offers to write for you. Let's say the pope and the Dalai Lama also want to be regular contributors. And every major pop singer, movie star, sports hero and political candidate on the planet.
Even better, they are all willing to write for free. And give you new content every day. Sometimes even every hour.
Could you find subscribers? Oh, I forgot to mention, subscriptions are absolutely free, and distribution is instantaneous all around the world.
How could you lose with a line-up like that?
Well, here's how you could screw it up: Tell your illustrious contributors that all articles are restricted to 140 characters. Refuse to let them edit contributions after they are published. Make it almost impossible for readers to find newsworthy articles and creative gems by mixing them with tens of thousands of cat photos, selfies, and rants.
That’s not all. Don’t let the musicians share their music on your site—force them to send their fans to YouTube or some other place to listen to it. Don’t let authors put their writings on the site. Don’t let the politicians share their campaign speeches. In fact, force all of your famous contributors to direct the audience to other websites to enjoy their best work.
And to put the final nail in the coffin—and this must be the strangest idea of all—insist that readers sign up as content providers themselves, and tell them that their main reason for participating is to attract their own subscribers. Make them feel like failures if they don’t find a large audience for their contributions.
But don’t be surprised when they sign out and never sign back in.
This is the story of Twitter, a sure-fire success that has squandered its advantages and is now in free-fall. The company's stock price has dropped by two-thirds since the close of its first day of trading—destroying around $20 billion in shareholder value. The user base is stagnant. Key executives are departing for other companies. Skeptics now see Twitter as the next in the long list of social networking disaster stories, from Friendster to MySpace.
How could they blow this opportunity? Twitter boasts the greatest line-up of content providers in the history of the world—and these amazing talents are willing to give them free material every minute, every hour and every day. Yet Twitter seems to lose as many site users as it gains nowadays. Twitter has only 20 percent of Facebook’s user base, and is struggling to hold on to those people.
Here’s what’s worse. The company doesn’t seem to grasp the reasons for its decline. It acts as if it is in the messaging business, not the content business. The company’s role model appears to be Samuel Morse’s telegraph—only without the Morse Code (thank goodness!). In other words, Twitter wants to be the 21st century equivalent of the old Western Union, and serve as intermediary for the flow of millions of mundane, short messages. The company’s idea of success is a billion people using its platform to share photos of their lunch, and telling the world where they went to walk the dog.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Let a thousand selfies blossom! But Twitter is a lousy messaging service. I have a range of messaging options that are far superior to its platform, from email to WhatsApp. In fact, the more urgent the message, the less likely I am to trust Twitter with it.
On the other hand, Twitter has the potential to become the most powerful content provider on the planet. Unfortunately, it is the stupidest publisher in history—almost laughably idiotic in its insistence on imposing arbitrary and ridiculous constraints on the megastars that should be the company’s meal ticket.
This struggling social network has perhaps 12 months, 18 at most, before it slides into irrelevancy. Here’s what it needs to do if it wants to avoid the graveyard of failed web platforms.
1. Ditch the 140-character limit, but in a way that doesn’t clog up the users’ Twitter feeds. This can be handled quite easily. Only display the first 140 characters of tweets on the user’s feed, but show the rest with a click of the mouse or touch of the screen. Twitter can look just the same as it does now, but with a wide variety of enriched content available under the surface.
The level of frustration created by the 140-character limit is so high, that some users even take photos of a text and tweet the image. Remember that old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words. Twitter finally proved it was true—by forcing people to opt for the picture. The time has come for the platform to give users the thousand-word option as well.
2. Make it easy—and profitable—for content providers to share music and other digital works via Twitter. I know how angry musicians are at Spotify and YouTube. Offer artists a reasonable profit-sharing arrangement, and thousands of them will embrace Twitter as a distribution platform. The same is true for photographers, writers, and other creative talents. Twitter already gives them direct access to their audience. Now let them channel their work through the platform.
3. Let people feel good about subscribing to content without forcing them to attract their own followers. Make it optional for users to share how many accounts they follow or have following them. Make it easier for audiences to enjoy content without logging in to an account. Twitter can monetize eyeballs, and it’s almost irrelevant how many users post their own content or even create usernames and passwords.
Instead, Twitter has imposed a bizarre caste system on to its platform. Participants feel they are measured by how many followers they attract. In fact, this metric is almost the first thing people see when they go to a user’s Twitter page. Participants are even graded by outside services, such as Klout or Kred, who provide a metric akin to a credit rating for tweet appeal. Who can be surprised when many abandon Twitter because of their poor success in drawing an audience. Twitter has told them that they don’t measure up. No other content provider puts this strange burden on its subscribers.
Imagine if NBA teams forced fans to prove how well they could shoot free throws before they got a seat at the game. Imagine if ticket holders at a concert had to sing into the microphone in order to hear the band. Sometimes consumers simply want to consume, not create—but Twitter ignores this distinction…at its own cost.
4. Get video and live-streaming right. Twitter’s move into video and live-streaming reveals all the flaws in its world view. The live video options from its Periscope app are a snooze. Do you want to watch a kid eating Cheerios or a middle-aged man shaving? Twitter’s recent deal with the NFL suggests that they have started to grasp that their current streaming options are less than scintillating. They need to do more of the same, and as soon as possible.
5. Allow users to remove hashtags and other metadata from the content. Don’t get rid of the tags and other identifiers, but give users the option of putting them out of sight.
6. Let users edit content after it has been posted. When a conversation on Twitter takes off, the participants often want to go back and add hashtags to previous posts—so that the whole discussion gets archived together and can be accessed on a single screen. But Twitter won’t allow that. Nor will Twitter let users fix spelling errors, or correct factual mistakes. If Twitter wants to ensure transparency, it can allow users to view earlier versions of postings. But to make editing impossible is sheer idiocy on any content-driven platform.
7. Allow users to archive their posts in categories of their choosing. Let musicians put all their songs in a separate online tab on Twitter. Let photographers do the same for their photographs, comedians for their jokes, and authors for their writing. Let the users create and name these tabs, and decide what to include under them. Right now Twitter imposes three archive categories on users—“Tweets,” “Tweets & Replies,” and “Media.” That just isn’t enough, and this unnecessary constraint is a major reason why high-quality tweets get lost in the noise.
8. Let users add expiration dates to their posts. Sometimes we write for posterity. At other times we are only thinking thirty seconds ahead. Twitter is incapable of distinguishing between the two. If they let users make these decisions, everyone’s feed will be less cluttered, and higher quality content will get more visibility.
9. Stand up for transparency and freedom of expression. Twitter is now more zealous than ever in shutting down accounts, sometimes offering extremely vague explanations of its reasons. Some clever person even came up with the hashtag #Twitmo to describe the heavy-handed way in which this censorship is imposed, without due process or transparency. The company seems to be flirting with the dubious notion that hurt feelings are a sufficient reason to curtail freedom of speech—and once Twitter starts down that path, it will need to keep an army of censors busy around the clock.
Instead, Twitter ought to create an advisory panel of human rights and civil liberties advocates … and listen to what they have to say. In the meantime, the company needs to be far more transparent about the reasons for censorship, and offer an appeal process for those who have been silenced.
If Twitter takes these nine steps, it can turn the tide. The company still has an edge because of its famous content providers. But if the company keeps forcing these irreplaceable talents to work with an antiquated telegram model of communication, both the superstars and users will depart for a better interface.
The company can still do all the other things it’s known for. Twitter can still let people post photos of their lunch, cheer for their favorite sports team, or share in the collective grief when a David Bowie or Prince leaves us. Those should always be a key part of what Twitter is.
But those capabilities can easily be matched by every other social network in the world. Twitter’s unique competence is its team of providers. Where else can you tap directly into the psyches of Kanye West, LeBron James, Edward Snowden, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kim Kardashian, Pope Francis, Oprah Winfrey, Salman Rushdie, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lady Gaga, and others of their stature?
Twitter can ride their coattails to success … it just needs to get out of their way.