Learning from Twitter’s Decline

Reports this week suggest that the number of tweets per day created by Twitter’s users has fallen by more than half since a peak in August 2014, according to a sampling of data from Twitter’s API. It’s hardly surprising, as both the media and tech sector have been charting and predicting its downward trajectory for several years. This is in addition to hits on the stock exchange in 2014, a change of CEO in 2015, the debacle regarding the identity 2013 of Boston Marathon bomber, and persistent reports of bullying via twitter from the general public, politicians and celebrities.

Whatever statistical or financial report you choose to read, it’s a sobering lesson for those creating new technology. An analysis of Twitter so far can provide something of a cautionary tales for those working in new media, wearables, IoT or any of the new technologies that are currently being developed. It demonstrates the importance of nurturing not only your product but also the ecosystem that surrounds it.

Your (Perceived) Changes May Work To Your Advantage

The #RIPTwitter debacle may be a blessing in disguise. The hashtag hit the social media on Saturday after an article from Buzzfeed stating that Twitter would soon prioritise the Tweets that appear on a user’s timeline based on algorithms. Essentially, under the reported new system, you’d see Tweets that Twitter thinks you’d like, rather than in the current reverse-chronological order similar to how posts on Facebook timelines are organized

It’s the most attention Twitter has received from its users in a while and shows the need to keep communicating with your audience or customers. That Jack Dorsey chose to correct the misinformation with some immediacy, on a weekend to boot, also wins him extra brownie points.

Take Ownership Of Your Complaints But Also, Look At The Flipside

I’ve heard Twitter called a ‘shouting gallery’ of noisy spambots, celebrity gossip, and trolls, devoid of real interactive communication. People talk about feeling lonely on Twitter. However the flipside of this noise and attention is apparent in the success of live twitter feeds for political debates, sporting events like The SuperBowl, and the sheer pleasure in following an amusing hashtag discussion.

Curated experiences like hashtag following have more resonance than an everyday newsfeed where it’s easy to lose the flow. Twitter could optimise on this strength through providing a range of options for a curated experience. These could include easier mechanisms to view and edit those followed, a “more like this” API, the option for breakout topics in a separate tab and a ‘read later’ API for news links, to name but a few ideas.

People are still talking in Twitter and sharing thoughts and opinions but in a different way. In facilitating these kinds of opportunities, Twitter would be building on some of their strengths while staying true to the core goals of facilitating succinct communication amongst account holders.

Don’t Just Let Them Talk, Make Sure You Listen

As a platform, Twitter has controlled its users from the get go, from the length of tweets to the number of accounts that can be followed, to the facilitation of abbreviations and hashtags. It has not only shaped how people use the platform but also their expectations of it.

Where it has failed is a lack of listening – listening to account holders and what they want and most importantly, engaging with not only people with inactive accounts but those who have closed their accounts. Why aren’t they asking people to rate their experiences and offer recommendations? Why are they failing to respond to opportunities to get meaningful data? Every person that registers an account but uses it only rarely or deletes their account is a lost opportunity if there is no engagement.

Consider Abuse Over The Entire Lifecycle Of Your Product

Twitter has been long accused of failing to take abuse on the social network seriously. Even then CEO Dick Costolo recognized the epidemic and admitted: “We suck at dealing with abuse.”

Twitter created a partnership with the nonprofit Women, Action & the Media (WAM!) in 2014 to address issues of online bullying and harassment. Twitter granted WAM! an authorized harassment reporter status. From November 6 to November 26, 2014, they took in reports of Twitter-based harassment, assessed them, and escalated reports as necessary to Twitter for special attention.

The subsequent report is interesting if unpleasant reading. It involved 811 incoming reports of harassment and discussed a range of issues such as different kinds of harassment (including doxxing), problems with duplicate reports and those sent by a bot (over 250), the problems of evidence for both reporting to Twitter and law enforcement, and the impact of reviews cases upon staff. Not surprisingly members of the WAM! staff and board themselves received harassment on Twitter as a result of the reporting project including hate speech, distribution of photoshopped images and false information, and rape and death threats.

Since the report, Twitter has made a number of changes the process of abuse reporting, from simplified forms to making it easier to report threats to law enforcement.

Twitter has also cracked down on doxxing and revenge porn with changes to its usage policies in March 2015. People who get caught posting other people’s identifying information, intimate videos and photos without their consent will have their accounts locked until they delete the offending posts. And repeat offenders will get suspended from Twitter. For the revenge porn, Twitter will take stuff down without a DMCA request as long as the person complaining verifies that it’s them in the photos or videos.

It is imperative that anyone wanting to create new technology in the long term, whether it be IoT, a new form of internet communication, subcutaneous wearables or blockchain structures is able to anticipate and to some extent predict what could go wrong over with a product over a lifetime.

Focus On The Capabilities Of Your Product To Do Good

Perhaps Twitter’s (and by virtue Periscope’s) greatest strength is its ability to connect people in situations that benefit from leaderless self-organising and direct action but rely on public communication like the Arab Spring or the #blacklivesmatter campaign. Twitter’s ability to create a platform for civilians on the ground reporting cannot be underestimated.

This is further strengthened by its partnership with Periscope, whose founders came up with the idea while traveling abroad in 2013. Kayvon Beykpour was in Istanbul when protests broke out in Taksim Square. He wanted to see what was happening there, so he turned to Twitter. While he could read about the protests, he could not see them.

These kinds of benefits are tangible and effective and can reinforce the benefits of Twitter at a time when it is accused of lacking an engaged audience. Likewise, most new technology has great capacity for social action through its functionality or the scope of its audience or consumer basis.

It will be interesting to see what Twitter comes up with next. There’s still a need for it in a space of crowded social media if the member-led hash tweet campaigns are anything to go by. People don’t react to change unless they are invested in the outcome and people have shown that they want Twitter to stay- for the time being. 

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