Advice for Twitter

In my accustomed role of moralist scold, I probably shouldn’t want to help Twitter. I should want it to be replaced with an open-source, distributed, decentralized ÐAPP or something. And at some level I do want that. But for now, Twitter is the only social whatnot I actively use, and when I don’t hate the service I sometimes really like it.

I keep reading articles about how Twitter is dying or failing or crashing or whatever. I have ideas! I don’t know whether anything I propose might justify Twitter’s current or recent-past stock price. I could care less. But here are some things I would do to make Twitter a better business, in multiple senses of the word better.

  • Ditch the whole ads and analytics model Twitter currently aspires to. It’s an evil business model, no matter how well it works for companies that once promised not to do evil. Putting aside the moralism, Facebook and Google pretty much have a lock on that gold mine. Apple, not a don’t-be-evil company by any measure, has seen the writing on the wall and chosen to differentiate itself by not spying on people. Twitter should do the same. Just stop it, and make a big show of stopping it. Twitter, to its credit, has a decent record overall of standing up for people’s rights to use its platform for controversial political speech. It should keep doing that, stop doing this, stop spying, and make respect of user privacy an integral component of its brand.

  • Charge the people who get the most from Twitter. Don’t give “producers” micropayments, take their money. People who interact on Twitter, especially those who gain a large-ish following, get a lot more out of Twitter than people for whom it is just one more passive information source. This is tricky: if people have to pay to tweet from the start, they would never get enmeshed in the service deeply enough for it to become worth paying for. What Twitter needs is a payments model that lets casual users Tweet for free indefinitely but cajoles power users into paying to support the business.

  • That business model exists. It falls right out of the experience of power users. Over the years, I have wasted tens of hours trying to shave a few characters off some vain idiocy I imagined to be clever and witty in order to conform to the 140 character limit.

    It would be a terrible idea for Twitter to let users pay to escape the character limit arbitrarily. Twitter’s raison d’etre is the micro in microblogging. No one should be embedding essays into people’s timelines. However, it would not kill Twitter if I could pay a little to slip in an extra few characters rather than waste five or ten minutes reworking, abbreviating, or mangling the perfect quip that happens to clock in at 143.

    My suggestion is exponential pricing. One extra character, a tweet length 141, costs 1¢. Two extra characters costs 2¢. Three extra characters costs 4¢. n extra characters costs 2n-1 cents. By 28 extra characters, the cost spirals to more than $1M dollars. I think it’s fair to say that this pricing model would enable people to go a few characters over without worrying about it while keeping intact the “around 140 character” user experience. I think I’d end up paying $20-ish a month under this model, but I’d be grateful for the time saved and the preserved quality of expression relative to my current use of the service. And of course, users would continue to have the option to treat 140 as a hard limit and pay nothing. The tradeoff between perfectionism and money would be entirely at each users’ discretion.

  • Twitter’s default algorithm should remain real-time, reverse chronological feeds whose contents are fully determined by users’ choice of followers. But critics are right to point out that the standard feed may not provide the best curation for everyone. Since Twitter would be out of the corrupt and corrupting business of selling eyeballs for ads, it could leave the choice of alternative curations entirely at each user’s discretion. Twitter could offer a menu of algorithms that it thinks will be useful to different categories of users, even impose a default (in a tab distinct from the standard feed) that users would be able to replace or augment. Twitter could define an API through which outsiders could publish their own algorithms for curating timelines that would then become available to users in a kind of (free) “app store”.

  • It should be possible to Tweet stuff to people. Real stuff, goods and services. Twitter should try to earn users’ trust and collect meatspace identities and addresses while promising to hold them in strict confidence. Without necessarily knowing the true identity of the recipient, Twitter users should be able to send gifts to Twitter handles. Twitter would partner with various merchants to define the range of available goods, and work with them to fulfill.

    Since Twitter itself would know the transacting parties, it would be able to deter abuse. Individual users could define whether they accept gifts and from whom. Only from people I follow? A special Twitter list? Anyone and everyone? Users decide. Users could also decide whether to let gifts surprise them at their doorstep, or could require on-line approval before an order is processed. Obviously, this would be a very easy service for Twitter to monetize. They would just take a percentage of the cost of the gift as a service fee. Gifts might be represented by a special kind of glyph in tweets (that one can click to inspect), and might be included in both public tweets and direct messages. Attempts to publish Tweets with gifts to users not configured to accept them should be blocked, and Tweets with gifts that recipients will screen before accepting might be withheld from publication until the gift has been approved. There should be modest limits to the dollar value of tweetable gifts individually, and to the total value transferred from one person to another over a period. The intent would not be for Twitter to become a payments system or a means of sending large bribes. Over the years, I’ve wanted to send people books, a delivery of chicken soup, a stuffed animal or a card. Obviously digital goods would be easy, gift certificates or music or an ebook.

    As with exponential pricing of characters, no one should be forced from their existing practices by this new option. Users who don’t wish to send or receive gifts could continue to use the service as they currently do, without providing any identifying information to Twitter. They would remain as pseudonomous as they currently are (perhaps even moreso, if Twitter flamboyently forewent the kind of spying on users that is now the standard practice of ad-supported sites).

  • Twitter should go back to making itself open to outside developers and third-party clients. I am delighted to read that it plans to do so. Obviously, Twitter has a credibility problem, having crushed outside developers when it decided it wanted to gather eyeballs to ads and control what they see. The service behaved abysmally. Twitter should do everything it can to commit to never doing anything like that again. Having a business model that makes money independently of how people encounter or publish tweets would render their devotion to a new glasnost less suspect. If there are things they will need to restrict (like, say, a free tweet-longer service embedded in clients), they should think about that carefully and publish those restrictions in advance.


9 Responses to “Advice for Twitter”

  1. The rapidly escalating micropayments for extra characters is kind of brilliant.

  2. Charging heavy users above certain levels (both tweets and RTs, but not DMs) makes a lot of sense, and might even encourage better behaviour, but I’m not sure that penalising popularity – by charging for the number of followers – would work. Twitter won’t want to risk alienating slebs who could live without the channel.

    The exponential pricing of tweets is clever, but easy to circumvent. Just write a 300-char message in a text-editor, screen grab the area or snap a photo of it and tweet the image.

    I wouldn’t rule out an ad model altogether, simply because there is a potential alternative to the Google/Facebook approach that might suit Twitter users. Where G&F inject ads based on the advertisers choice of keywords, Twitter could turn this round and have the users pick the advertisers.

    For example, you might be obliged to receive 10 ads in your timeline over the course of a day from 4 selected advertisers (2 ads each), with a further 2 ads from “sponsors” in the traditional mould (i.e. unselected).

    This would offer a higher degree of relevance, which is the holy grail for advertisers, because it would be self-selecting. Sponsors would target their ads based not on user content (out-of-context mentions and hashtags), or associations (followers who also bought X), but on selected advertisers (if you like them, you’ll probably like us).

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  5. quanticle writes:

    The exponential pricing of tweets is clever, but easy to circumvent. Just write a 300-char message in a text-editor, screen grab the area, or snap a photo of it and tweet the image.

    That’s exactly what people do now with the 140-character limit. There are lots of posts on Twitter where the actual content is an essay that someone’s taken a screenshot of. I fail to see how adding exponential pricing would make the problem worse.

  6. Sid writes:

    Tightening up their anonymous abuse policy would be good too. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean infringing on freedom of speech.

    For example, hold those who don’t have a verifiable account (one that isn’t cross referenced with say a facebook or linkedin account) to a higher standard – If such accounts receive 10 or more “abuse points” then they are automatically closed, abusive accounts which are third party verified would require a human twitter trial.

    I think such a simple policy would implicitly produce a significant improvement to user experience.

    Also, and this is a big missing thing… promote lists to a “front of house” user experience instead of hiding them in the background. Sort of like curated pinterest lists.. a better twitter experience is one where people can organise their interests instead of commingling them into one timeline.



  7. Craig Morris (@PPchef) writes:

    More characters is fundamentally a bad idea. The last thing I need is a bunch of people firing long texts at me. I would, however, be willing to pay a dollar a year (isn’t that what WhatsApp costs?) in return for the ability to effectively block certain users from reading my posts and commenting on them. I have already blocked one, but he still manages to comment frequently. It seems that I cannot see him, but he could see me – and everyone else can see him commenting on me. What’s the point?

    By the way, if you need more space for text, write what you want, take a screenshot of it, and plug it in as a picture.

  8. Nick writes:

    Great ideas!!!

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