To go mainstream, Twitter needs to kill the stream

To go mainstream, Twitter needs to kill the stream

Matthew Braga | February 7, 2014 | Last Updated: Feb 7 4:27 PM ET
There are people that believe Twitter is all about the stream – that, if you just keep scrolling, the wonders of the world will coalesce into a single, hypnotic column. The stream is where bite-sized hits from Benghazi and the Grammy’s can exist side-by-side amidst tweets from friends on some movie you all saw last night. If that’s not the definition of information density, of how a new generation of internet-connected youth consume things we loosely term as “news,” I dare you to find me a better definition of what is.

But for those who don’t know how to swim in this stream – or don’t care to, or can’t afford to, or simply don’t have time – Twitter is intimidating. It is overwhelming. It is an endless, constant deluge of tweets, without focus or form, because Twitter, as it exists today, isn’t built for the mainstream.

At least, not yet.

Mainstream is something that Twitter desperately wants to be – something that caters to people who aren’t just journalists, information junkies, marketers, engineers, tech-savvy and the well-to-do. It is chasing a level of diversity and scale that only Facebook presently has. And to do it, the company is hinting at a more refined, more focused experience, where the deluge of the stream is freed of its chronology, split, instead, into curated timelines of topical and relevant tweets.

It may not cater to the early adopters and power users in the way it once did, but going forward, it’s how Twitter plans to sell its service to the hundreds of millions of users – parents and friends, so-called everyday people – who have yet to jump aboard.

It isn’t surprising that the stream’s days are numbered. As Twitter has scaled, the stream has not, and mechanisms for interacting with the stream – for filtering it, sorting it, watching it go by – have failed to keep up. Lists are unwieldily, and hard to manage. Hashtags are less a chance to “join the conversation” as they are an invitation to get lost in it. Entirely new ways of interacting with Twitter – third-party apps known as clients – have been devised solely so that stream can be diverted into columns, or smaller, more manageable creeks.

These are things that even power users and early adopters find difficult at times to grasp. So imagine trying to explain all of these things to a family member, a friend, a co-worker new to Twitter. Hell, you’ve probably already tried. And it’s hard, because these features weren’t built with the mainstream in mind. They are relics of a time when Twitter was still a playground for early adopters and have remained relatively unchanged for years.

But now Twitter is beholden to its shareholders, and its shareholders want mainstream growth. According to AllThingsD, Mr. Costolo told employees last year that he believed the company would reach 400 million users by the end of 2013. But the company, in its first quarterly earnings report since going public last fall, revealed it had added just 9 million users to its base in the fourth quarter of its fiscal year, bringing the total to 241 million. As a result, Twitter’s stock tanked.

Mr. Costolo, of course, preferred this week to focus on revenue, up 116% year-over-year. But revenue and user growth, to a certain extent, go hand-in-hand. To increase the flow of new users, Twitter needs a better timeline, a better stream. And a better stream – or at least, a more topical, or more relevant stream – is a more profitable stream for Twitter too.

Since 2011, Twitter has maintained a “Discover” section of its website, described as “what’s happening now, tailored for you.” It’s a curious mix of news, images, and out-of-context tweets, plucked from the ether, that has largely felt like an experiment.

But last summer Twitter introduced a feature known as Conversations – its first major change to the central stream. Conversations is simply a blue vertical line that links conversational tweets and replies to one another in the stream, but divorced from their chronological place in time. The feature, though initially hated, was like a giant “In Case You Missed This Sign” resurfacing tweets from the past into the present.

It also had a curious effect on Twitter’s key advertising metric. Timeline views are down, according to the company’s most recent earnings, but advertising revenue per thousand timeline views is up. In other words, improving the stream is making it more valuable, too.

But while Conversations merely augmented the existing stream, what comes next will be a more radical change. In a conference call with investors earlier this week, Mr. Costolo hinted at both “topic-based timelines” and “relevance-based timelines” – alternate streams that would present tweets, not necessarily in the order each was published online, but cherry picked and curated as determined by an algorithmic secret sauce.

In fact, some of those topic and relevance-based features are already baked into Twitter search. Clicking on a popular hashtag like #Grammys or searching for “Rob Ford” produces a list of curated, algorithmically selected top tweets above the actual real-time results. You’ll see some of the most re-tweeted, favourited, clicked-on or relevant tweets – based on your interests and the people you follow – that essentially measure the pulse of a given topic. You could keep scrolling to see more, but for most, those top tweets are enough. According to Mr. Costolo, search engagement is up “significantly,” and its pretty easy to see why.

Mainstreaming Twitter is cutting out the noise, and amplifying what matters – specifically, what matters to each of its users – and search is just the start. While the onus was once on users to manage the stream, the tools to do so have become too unwieldy, too unfriendly, to match Twitter’s present and future scale. And so Twitter itself is finally taking on the role of curation itself.

Most importantly, none of this is bad. Those who have been using Twitter since it’s earliest days are, naturally, most opposed to where things are heading, because it puts a filter on the previously unrestricted stream. When timelines are sorted by topic or relevance, it makes you wonder what tweets didn’t get picked – what potentially important information fell through the algorithmic cracks. It is a fear of missing out.

There’s nothing to say that the stream in its current form won’t stick around for media, brands and power users – but it can no longer be the default view.

It is too easy now for the stream to feel like a deluge, and for Twitter to feel like work. Last fall, for example, I unfollowed everyone and started again from scratch. It felt like the only way I could assert some control – to, temporarily, take refuge from a barrage of rehashed, retweeted and repeated tech news and Rob Ford related tweets. A few months later, having now re-followed a few hundred people, I can say with certainty it didn’t really work.

But change is coming. And I’m convinced that, finally, it’s what we’ve needed all along.

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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