Twitter is the social application I use the most. I check it as soon as I wake up in the morning, whenever I have a free moment while riding the bus or in line at a coffee shop, and when news breaks. I rely on it heavily for news and information, as well as predictable snark from fellow journalists.
When I spend time on Twitter, I’m either posting or reading public updates. Very rarely do I use it to send direct messages, as Twitter calls its one-to-one private messages, mostly because it’s a feature buried within an app that’s geared for news consumption, not private communication.
If Twitter rebooted its direct-messaging system and turned it into a standalone app, like Facebook has done with Facebook Messenger, I would gladly use it as a mobile messenger. Right now, most conversations I have with people via direct message always end with, “Here, text me, that will just be easier.”
Twitter has made a handful of changes in recent months to improve direct messages, including adding the ability to send photos in messages. After a period when the messaging feature was all but hidden, the company has put an increased emphasis on private messaging, and there were rumors last year that the company is working on a private messaging client to compete with apps like WhatsApp. So far, though, nothing has materialized.
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently dropped hints about improved messaging features in the company’s most recent quarterly earnings call, suggesting that the company was exploring ways to share updates privately with a small group of people. That would be great, too—if the company first took care of the basic problems with its existing messaging tools.
Messaging Is Overtaking Social
Gone are the days when oversharing with hundreds of friends was the most popular way to spend time online. As people become more concerned about privacy—and as messaging startups continue to pop up with unique features designed for chatting—more people are choosing to share information privately.
The “ephemeral” messaging startup Snapchat exploded into popularity among teens with its disappearing photos. Other social networks, most notably Facebook, struggled to catch up. Facebook’s Snapchat clone, Poke, failed miserably, and to add insult to injury, Snapchat reportedly rebuffed Facebook’s $3 billion acquisition offer.
As we’ve since learned, Snapchat messages don’t actually disappear—but the idea of disappearing messages which can’t be held up to public scrutiny has taken hold. And that’s a problem for Twitter, whose dominant mode of sharing is public.
Nothing encapsulates the rising trend in mobile messaging quite like Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp—the world’s most popular messaging application—for $19 billion. Although Facebook has its own mobile messenger which it’s been focused on growing, buying WhatsApp was a testament to people’s switch from social networks to messaging apps.
It’s time for Twitter to get on board.
A Flawed Messaging System
Twitter’s direct messages are frustrating. You can’t send links to the majority of websites. The character limit is set at 140—even shorter than a traditional text message. And if you send more than 250 messages a day, you can end up in Twitter jail. All of these limitations are arbitrary results of Twitter’s architecture, not elegant product decisions based on user needs.
Last fall, Twitter made it impossible to send links in direct messages. The company claimed it was a technical issue with URLs sent in direct messages at the time. But if it’s a glitch, it’s still not fixed: Users still can’t send links via DM. There are a few sites that are approved for inclusion, like twitter.com and facebook.com, but others, like personal websites and even major news sites, don’t work.
Twitter’s restriction of inboxes was likely an attempt to keep spammy messages to a minimum. While it did eliminate unwanted messages—I haven’t received a spammy DM since Twitter blocked links—I’ve been increasingly frustrated every time I try to share a link with a friend.
Users can send messages from both Twitter’s mobile app and Twitter.com, but often notifications are out of date between versions. On the Web, I receive messages well after I’ve already read them on mobile, and frequently there is a notification alert above the mail icon on my Twitter homepage alerting me to a message I’ve already read.
Fail Me Once, Shame On You
Then there are those legendary “DM fails.”
One benefit of Twitter creating a messenger application might be to put an end, once and for all, to Twitter scandals where the sender claims they goofed and tried to send a direct message—an idea now so common it inspired a plot point in Jon Favreau’s new movie Chef.
The notion of a direct-message mistake, or “DM fail,” is becoming dated. DM fails happened more frequently when people used Twitter via text message or third-party clients and replied to someone with an “@” instead of a “D” in front of their username—remember Rep. Anthony Weiner’s epic mishap?
Now that people regularly use the Twitter app or Twitter on the Web, these DM fails are pretty hard to do, but people are still using the excuse when caught writing inappropriate tweets.
An overhauled messaging system would not only improve the Twitter experience, but it would also be a way to attract more users, and keep them on the service. Twitter has struggled to evangelize its services to the masses, and is taking steps to appeal to a larger audience by simplifying its services. A standalone messaging app could do just that.
And separating the idea of public and private communications would go far to simplify what Twitter means. Foursquare just did something similar in unbundling its location-broadcasting and city-guide features into separate apps.
In the meantime, I’ll just have to keep giving out my phone number to Twitter friends. Or I’ll tell them to message me on Facebook.
Image by threesisters