It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn
I try to save the most over-used of clichés for special moments, and that’s exactly what this week feels like for Twitter. You may disagree, of course — Wall Street does, having driven the stock down yesterday to just a dollar above its IPO price (and 38% down from its first day close) — but that’s why the cliché works: things may seem dark, but I’m optimistic that the horizon has just the slightest glimmer of light.
Long time readers know that while I love and value the product, I’m no Twitter fanboy. The company’s user retention issues were apparent well before the IPO, and the company had a clear product problem that, ultimately and correctly, cost CEO Dick Costolo his job. Tack on a messy — and thus, unsurprising — CEO search that culminated in a part-time CEO in direct contradiction to the Board of Director’s public statements to the contrary,1 and no wonder the stock has been down-and-to-the-right, with all of the problems (especially around retention) that that entails. Again, this was predictable.
I think, though, it’s time for a new prediction: that the summer of 2015 will be seen as the low point for Twitter, and that this week in particular will mark the start of something new and valuable. Crucially, the reasons why are directly related to why I was bearish for so long: the product, the CEO, and the stock.
It was a bit disconcerting when, during the conference call to announce the appointment of Jack Dorsey as CEO, Lead Independent Director Peter Currie, Dorsey, and newly promoted COO Adam Bain brought up Project Lightning, an internal project that was bizarrely revealed to BuzzFeed by Costolo just days before his departure; at the time it was hard to see the pre-announcement as anything other than a last ditch attempt to save his job, and one wondered if the mentions on the conference call had a similar motivation: give Wall Street something, anything, to hold onto, even if jacking up expectations would hurt the new product when it launched.
Well, the product launched…and it’s fantastic. Moreover, it’s not only that it’s fantastic from a product perspective — actually, there is a lot to nitpick — but that it is fantastic from a strategic perspective.
Moments has three components:
- When you first tap the Moments tab at the bottom of the Twitter app2 you’re dropped into the ‘Today’ view that lists a mishmash of stories that, well, happened today.
Touch any of the stories to get a curated list of tweets that tell the story in question through videos, images, and sometimes just text. It’s a really great experience, and I found the sports stories with their combination of highlights and tweeted reactions particularly enjoyable3
For any Moment in progress, you can tap a button to add tweets about that Moment to your main timeline. Crucially, though, those tweets only persist for the duration of the event in question; the ‘Unfollow’, which is the most essential action when it comes to building a Twitter feed you actually read, is done for you
Finally, in what was probably the biggest surprise in the product, there is a carousel at the top leading to more focused categories:
Each of these categories includes not only ‘News’ or ‘Entertainment’ Moments that just happened, but also more timeless content, particularly in ‘Fun.’ Look carefully at those category titles, though — they sure look familiar:
That’s right, Twitter just reinvented the newspaper. It’s not just any newspaper though — it has the potential to be the best newspaper in the world.
This newspaper angle touches on the strategic aspect of Moments. The demise of newspapers is the most obvious example of Aggregation Theory and what happens when distribution becomes free. You go from a situation where geographic bundles are the only way to reach consumers to one where consumers can access any story from any publication — it’s those that control discovery that have all the power:
Google was the first and biggest beneficiary of this shift, but, as I noted last week, Google has always been more about intentional discovery as opposed to directed browsing. On the flipside, Facebook excels at serendipitous discovery, but if you actually want to get informed about what is happening, without knowing what you want to know, then it’s not clear what is the best answer.
True, you can go to a specific publication like the New York Times or USA Today, but you’re not getting the best possible content for every story, and besides, the fundamental format of their stories was designed for paper, not mobile. The NYT Now and BuzzFeed News apps do well to bring in stories from other apps, but the mixture is a bit haphazard and again, long-form text is good for some things but not all things.4 Snapchat, meanwhile, has Discovery — from which Twitter clearly took product inspiration, and for good reason5 — but that too is organized by publication, a decision that makes sense for business development reasons but not necessarily user experience ones. In other words, I think Twitter Moments’ organization is superior.
What’s most interesting, though, and most exciting, is understanding how it is that Twitter can pull this off: the company doesn’t need stories from publications because it has nearly all of the originators of those stories already on its service. In other words, if the Internet broke down newspapers to their component stories, Twitter breaks down stories to their component moments,6 and those moments are chronicled not only by normal people on the ground but by the best news-gatherers on the planet.
The fact that news is reported first via tweet has always been true of Twitter, and it’s a huge reason why so many are so devoted to the service. However, to become an effective aggregator you have to aggregate not just the source material but also the audience, and the problem for Twitter is that learning the product has simply been far too difficult for most new users. There is nothing difficult about Moments, however, and Twitter should make it the default screen for their app.7
What is exciting is that Moments isn’t close to fulfilling its potential: imagine a tweet-based newspaper drawn not only from the best sources in a mobile-friendly format, but one perfectly customized to you. This is what Twitter is already like for power users, but again, getting to that state is simply too difficult. Figuring out how to do this systematically on users’ behalf should be Twitter’s chief aim.
“Should” is probably a bit superfluous: the incentives for Twitter to focus on this type of customization are massive. Twitter is uniquely positioned to understand what its users are interested in, something that at least theoretically rivals Facebook’s imposing demographic information, SnapChat’s youth advantage, or Pinterest’s grasp of my aspirations. The reason customized Moments matter is because there are two payoffs: the user experience is better, and the advertising that will undoubtedly be sold in Moments will be better targeted and more effective.
I do think the ads will be great, regardless. The placement opportunity within stories is obvious, and like the best sort of in-stream native advertising the brand in question will take over the entire screen, if only for a moment. And, like the other networks I just listed, Moment ads will be both unblockable and located where users live, not where they visit.
Certainly, as any number of articles have already breathlessly noted, Twitter Moments is built for basic users. It’s essential, though, that Twitter not forget about those living mostly happily with the company’s core product — they’re the ones that create Moments’ content (for free, I’d add). This is where Dorsey’s return as CEO has the potential to have the most impact, because the core product has stagnated horribly, particularly in regards to the 140-character limit and conversations.
- It remains inexplicable that tweet payloads, such as links, pictures, and videos, count against the 140-character limit. Any and all attachments should not count against the limit
- There is one medium missing from the previous bullet point: text. Twitter cards can already handle the aforementioned videos or photos (or link previews), so why can’t they handle text? I’m not advocating for the removal of the 140-character limit for public tweets,8 simply a way for people to attach more fully-formed thoughts to the existing stream without needing to rely on obnoxious tweet storms. Links are great, but following a link is expensive for the user in time, bandwidth, and mental burden, and there’s no reason Twitter shouldn’t make it easy to keep ideas in its app
- Twitter conversations, which often contain the very best content on Twitter, are horribly broken and nearly undiscoverable. First, it’s again ridiculous that @-names count against the 140-character limit, making conversations with more than one or two people untenable. Second, it is far too difficult to follow a conversation — Twitter should investigate folded conversations like on Sina Weibo, the old Friendster, or Facebook. Third, Twitter should make it easy to temporarily follow a conversation, just like a moment, or, on the flipside, easily drop out
As far as I can tell, the primary reason none of this has been implemented is that no one at Twitter has had the authority to tamper with the sacred 140-character limit. This quote from a Recode story about potential changes to the limit was damning:
“People have been very precious at Twitter about what Twitter can be and how much it can be evolved,” said one current senior employee. “Having Jack come in and say it’s okay makes all the difference in the world.”
The fact of the matter is that 140 characters is an implementation detail; Twitter’s core value is in its interest graph, and it’s gotten to the point where fealty to that detail has had a material effect on said graph. If Dorsey really is able to just walk in and get people in line — even if only part-time — then I feel all the better about my endorsement of him for CEO:
Twitter has long been captive to its best users [and apparently employees] who rail against any change on the margins, much less even a rumor of changes to the core product; I suspect this hesitancy has been in large part driven by the fact that everyone in Twitter’s leadership was ultimately a hired gun. Dorsey, though, is a founder, and however controversial his first stint at the company may have been, there is no denying the authority this fact gives him when it comes to making changes.
Beyond Moments — indeed, for Moments to be successful — the core product has to evolve, and that’s why Dorsey is so important.
To be sure, most of this article has dealt with what Moments specifically and Twitter broadly can be, not what it is. The truth is Twitter still faces the challenges I and many others have documented endlessly:
- The company faces the far more difficult task of convincing users who have tried and abandoned the product to return; getting new users, which is usually thought of as the most difficult problem in consumer tech, is far easier in comparison
- The company faces far more competition when it comes to media consumption than it did a few years ago. Facebook is the 800-lb gorilla, but Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, and a whole host of other sites and apps are making the same bet Twitter is
- That diminished stock price undoes rather nicely the golden handcuffs that are vesting stock grants, particularly when a seemingly endless supply of unicorns are flush with private money and, as is ever the case in Silicon Valley, circling Twitter looking to poach the employees most capable of turning Twitter around
Per the first point, I absolutely think Moments is the right product to win users back, and I’m encouraged that Dorsey said on the investor call that the company would be launching an integrated marketing campaign around the product. Twitter should spare no expense.
Secondly, the fact remains that Twitter has the best content in the world already in a format perfectly suited to mobile. For a long time the lack of product vision and execution has obscured that content from most users, but, in a fair fight, I like Twitter’s chances.
Finally, the upside of a depressed stock is that, unlike most post-IPO companies, Twitter can actually offer new employees in particular the potential for real wealth gains from their stock grants. Anyone entering Twitter now is basically on the same footing as a pre-IPO employee at a unicorn; sure, the growth may never materialize, but there is a lot of upside and Twitter should leverage that. Moreover, there’s hope that Dorsey’s return and a renewed product vision could keep a lot of important folks in the fold.9
Much has been made of the comparison between Dorsey and Steve Jobs; certainly his return to the company he helped found and was later banished from fits the mold. It’s easy to mock this comparison, particularly given the fact that Dorsey has at times seemed so eager to invite it, but in fact we should all hope the comparison holds. There’s just something different about Apple, a company that seems so full of contradictions yet one that has continued to lead the industry both financially and in key innovations. I’d argue the same about Twitter: it doesn’t make sense, hasn’t really ever made sense, and perhaps that’s the reason it, and the irreplaceable ideas it contains, are so important. I hope its moment — its dawn — has arrived.
- Hello shareholder lawsuit [↩︎]
- Moments is not yet available worldwide; I got it to work by connecting to the U.S. via VPN [↩︎]
- I thought this moment about the Seattle-Detroit American football game was particularly good, in part because Twitter has secured rights to extended video highlights from the NFL [↩︎]
- In fact, BuzzFeed News does incorporate tweets and GIFs; it’s one of the reasons I prefer it [↩︎]
- I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I believe that good ideas are discovered more than invented [↩︎]
- I like Nuzzel for discovering long-form pieces, but half the allure is seeing a story’s associated tweets, and it doesn’t really help with anything live [↩︎]
- The company can use a setting to let power users stick with the timeline [↩︎]
- Thank goodness the company finally removed the limit on Direct Messages, which served little purpose beyond driving people and relationship information off of the platform [↩︎]
- For reasons beyond me I original referred to repricing options in this paragraph; like nearly every other company in tech, Twitter now offers Restricted Stock Units, not options. I apologize for the mistake [↩︎]