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Twitter's Great Big Problem Is Its Massive Opportunity

By - November 30, 2010

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One of the many reasons I find Twitter fascinating is that the company seems endlessly at an inflection point. Eighteen months ago I was tracking its inflection point in usage (holy shit, look how it’s growing! Then, holy shit, has it stopped?!), then its inflection in business model (hey, it doesn’t have one! Wait, yes it does, but can it scale?!), and more recently, its inflection point in terms of employees (as in growing from 80+ staff to 350+ in one year – necessitating a shift in management structure….).

Twitter now faces yet another inflection point – one I’ve been tracking for some time, and one that seems to be coming to a head. To me, that inflection has to do with usefulness – can the service corral all the goodness that exists in its network and figure out a way to make it useful to its hundreds of millions of users?

To me, this inflection point is perhaps its most challenging, and its greatest opportunity, because it encompasses all the others. If Twitter creates delightful instrumentations of the unique cacophony constantly crossing its servers, it wins big time. Users will never leave, marketers will never get enough, and employees will pine to join the movement (witness Facebook now, and Google five years ago).

Now, I’m not saying Twitter isn’t already a success. It is. The service has a dedicated core of millions who will never leave the service (I’m one of them). And I’m going to guess Twitter gets more resumes than it knows what to do with, so hiring isn’t the problem. And lastly, I’ve been told (by Ev, onstage at Web 2) that the company has more marketing demand than it can fulfill.

But therein lies the rub. Twitter has the potential to be much more, and everyone there knows it. It has millions of dedicated users, but it also has tens of millions who can’t quite figure out what the fuss is all about. And you can’t hire hundreds of engineers and product managers unless you have a job for them to do – a scaled platform that has, at its core, a product that everyone and their mother understands.

As for that last point – the surfeit of marketing demand – well that’s also a problem. Promoted tweets, trends, and accounts are a great start, but if you don’t have enough inventory to satisfy demand, you’ve not crossed the chasm from problem to opportunity.

In short, Twitter has a publishing problem. Put another way, it has a massive publishing opportunity.

Oh, I know, you’re saying “yeah Battelle, there you go again, thinking the whole world fits neatly into your favorite paradigm of publishing.”

Well yes, indeed, I do think that. To me, publishing is the art of determining what is worth paying attention to, by whom. And by that definition, Twitter most certainly is a publishing platform, one used by nearly 200 million folks.

The problem, of course, is that while Twitter makes it nearly effortless for folks to publish their own thoughts, it has done far too little to help those same folks glean value from the thoughts of others.

It was this simple truth that led FM to work with Microsoft to create ExecTweets, and AT&T to create the TitleTweets platform. It’s the same truth that led to the multi-pane interface of Tweetdeck as well as countless other Twitter apps, and it was with an eye toward addressing this problem that led to the introduction of Lists on Twitter.com and its associated APIs.

But while all those efforts are worthy, they haven’t yet solved the core problem or addressed the massive opportunity. At its core, publishing is about determining signal from noise. What’s extraordinary about Twitter is the complexity of that challenge – one man’s noise is another man’s signal, and vice versa. And what’s signal now may well be noise tomorrow – or two minutes from now. Multiply this by 200 million or so, then add an exponential element. Yow.

There is both art and science to addressing this challenge. What we broadly understand to be “the media” have approached the problem with a mostly one-to-many approach: We define an audience, determine what topic most likely will want to pay attention to, then feed them our signal, one curated and culled from the noise of all possible information associated with that topic. Presto, we make Wired magazine, Oprah, or Serious Eats.

Facebook has done the same with information associated with our friend graph. The newsfeed is, for all intents and purposes, a publication created just for you. Sure, it has its drawbacks, but it’s pretty darn good (though its value is directly determined by the value you place in your Facebook friend graph. Mine, well, it don’t work so well, for reasons of my own doing).

So how might Twitter create such a publication for each of its users? As many have pointed out (including Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo), Twitter isn’t a friend graph, it’s more of an interest graph, or put another way, an information graph – a massive set of points interconnected by contextual meaning. To the uninitiated, this graph is daunting.

Twitter’s current approach to navigating this graph centers around following human beings – at first with its “suggested users” list, which simply didn’t scale. Twitter soon replaced suggested users with “Who to follow” – a more sophisticated, algorithm-driven list of folks who seem to match your current set of followers and, to some extent, your interests. When you follow someone who’s a big foodie, for example, Twitter will suggest other folks who tweet about food. It does so, one presumes, by noting shared interests between users.

The question is, does Twitter infer those interests via the signal of who follows who, or does it do it by actually *understanding* what folks are tweeting about?

Therein, I might guess, lies the solution. The former is a proxy for a true interest graph – “Hey, follow these folks, because they seem to follow folks who are like the folks you already follow.” But latter *is* an interest graph – “Hey, follow these folks, because they tweet about things you care about.”

From that logically comes the ability to filter folks’ streams based on interests, and once you can do that, well, things get really…interesting. You could follow interests, instead of people, for example. It’s like search meets social! And hey – isn’t that kind of the holy grail?

If Twitter can make the interest graph explicit to its users, and develop products and features which surface that graph in real time, it wins on all counts. That is a very big problem to solve, and a massive opportunity to run after.

For more on this, read Making Twitter an Information Network, by Mike Champion, and “The unbearable lameness of web 2.0″, by Kristian Köhntopp, as well as the wonderful but too short The Algorithm + the Crowd are Not Enough, by Rand Fishkin. These and many more have informed my ongoing thinking on this topic. What do you think?

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18 thoughts on “Twitter's Great Big Problem Is Its Massive Opportunity

  1. miket says:

    Interesting article on several levels. What it fails at is honesty.

    First, Twitter is not a publishing platform. SMS messaging has been around since 1982 (first via Vodafone if my memory serves) but no one has ever called SMS services a publishing service. Until SXSX adopted Twitter and someone started calling it one.

    My basis for sahing Twitter is a not a publishing platform? Indonesians are not natural “publishers” but are extremely good at messaging via SMS due to their political-economic situation.

    Second, Twitter is a virtual chat service conducted globally. All at the same. About any topic. All accessible and trackable. I have tried to see if it works as a publishing platform but my eyeballs can’t move that fast.

    Yes, the potential is huge for a chat service to be turned into something more. That’s the essence of what Twitter really is. It’s a chat service. Not a publishing service.

    Additional components such as the ability to link with HTML pages may make it somewhat like a publishing platform, but at its heart — 140 characters — it is too simplistic to be labelled a publishing platform.

    Finally, it’s nice to keep hearing about “community” and “social” as if it means something. Last time I checked, real-world communities has been existence for thousands of years. For something more recent, I read Cory Doctorow’s simple article about Orkut from a company called Google. What’s wrong with Orkut, one might ask, how come it failed as social media? Well, because there were more Brazilians (I think) than Americans.

    On another continent, TenCent (QQ) and Baidu (amongst others) have huge social networks because, believe it or not, Asia has a history of communities. Again, it is not real communities nor social unless it is restricted to 140 characters and is called Twitter.

    I believe Orkut, QQ from TenCent and other social networks all have real value but to speak of Twitter as if it’s the only does it disservice.

    Therefore, to ask the question can Twitter add real value and be profitable is arrogant and rude because Baidu and TenCent (2 that I know of) has made it work and they are profitable.

    What is so unique about Twitter? Because it social and has a ‘real’ community?

    PS. John, please excuse me if my manner seems inappropriate but your learning in anthropology should work in my favour. :-)

  2. Jordan says:

    I too am in a conundrum as to what twitter really is, what it wants to be and what it is going to become. It is fascinating to me on a number of levels, like facebook, it’s users have become addicted to it. You would think with texting, teenagers would be all over twitter, surprisingly, they are not. What I find most people like is it is a micro blog / chat site all rolled into one.
    I think twitter is in an identity crisis. Knowing they have this huge opportunity, just in their user base alone, knowing they are bankrolled to the tune of $100 million or so, that they are treading lightly on the whole monetization issue because they want to get it just right. Facebook saw the opportunity in ads, they delivered. I am afraid that is twitter’s only option. How they do it, remains to be seen.

  3. Joel says:

    While I agree with your definition of publishing as “the art of determining what is worth paying attention to, by whom”, I think Twitter’s whole problem is that they really aren’t doing this right now at all. Twitter is a communication platform where *individuals* can publish – they can determine what is worth paying attention to – but Twitter itself only enables this curation and does not take part in it. Twitter tries to recommend people to follow, but it’s up to those users to publish useful, interesting content or links.

    My theory is that Twitter or “pothole-filling” startups like TweetSentiments.com will find ways to glean useful information from the firehose, and will eventually find intuitive ways to present that content to users. If the startups beat them to it, Twitter will (try to) buy them and will then become a true publishing platform, on top of being a communication platform, and then they’ll be more valuable to users and to advertisers.

  4. Tom says:

    The problem (and opportunity) you are describing – attention vs. noise – is the problem of the coming decade. It is not Twitter’s problem / opportunity alone, and this is not just about publishing (though it is certainly critically important for publishing). It is a conundrum that confronts all those (consumers, brands, publishers, promoters) who live in a world driven by digital distribution, by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email, the web and the Internet.

    It is a problem because while attention is in limited supply, stuff (or noise) is not. Since Andreesen and Bina introduced the graphical browser in 1993, the available content via the web has been expanding in a sort of digital “big bang” that shows no sign of abating. But in the 17 years that have passed – is it really that long? – my available attention (minutes awake and aware) has remained remarkably constant.

    This gap – between available stuff, and the attention consumers have to give – is a larger part of what has decimated the music business than P2P or piracy. And it promises to overwhelm most businesses that are purely about content.

    The solution you suggest – filtering streams based on interests – is a large part of where all of this has to go. It seems the most useful filters include our friends, interests, historical activity streams, and intentions (explicit or implicit). And I could well believe that whoever figures out how to deliver the best experience based on these filters will rule the world.

  5. A couple of points.

    1. Third parties. Unlike Google and its potential for analysing search data, much of the Twitter data could be analysed by third parties. So Twitter’s opportunity could be taken by someone else, analysing tweets. Yes, Twitter could do it a lot better, but there may still be a market for someone to bring a product to market before Twitter does. There is the risk that once Twitter launches its own interest graph, no one else’s will be worth anything, but that’s a long way out.

    2. Recommendation engines. Amazon and Netflix (remember their competition for +10% improvement in recommendations) have already shown how tough it is to analyse interests. Twitter may have a lot more data, but it also has a lot more noise, and less structure. So there is no guarantee that they could create a good interest graph.

  6. John Seets says:

    OK this makes a lot of sense dude.

  7. Kim says:

    OK this commentary is so on the money I think I’ve got a man crush. Several years ago I read a research paper on social networks and discourse communities in 18th century publishing. The bottom line is that communities of interest have stronger ties than networks which tend to be very ephemeral.

    It got me to thinking that what social media tools needed to offer were ways to create communities of interest based on the various personas that are of interest to me. Show me the people who share the interest and passion for what interests me and let me share with them (and only them) and that would be nirvana (or the holy grail).

    I even completed a fun little academic exercise to see if I could cobble together a solution based on what I thought were the most essential requirements – managing and sharing my persona and content and discovering others personas and content.

    Would love to hear more as to how you think twitter or some other platform can achieve this.

    Thanks again for a great piece. Got me juiced after a tough day.

  8. There are many opportunities with Twitter, as long as the users knows how to use it properly. I have heard recently that there are many celebrities who stopped using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, because of the “publishing” part of it. Opportunities are out there, but it seems that they are not responsible enough.

  9. Perry says:

    It felt to me like Twitter was smartly on this track with two early efforts – Lists and Annotations – but both initiatives seem to have fallen flat? Do you agree?

  10. Pascal Soucy says:

    We’ve set up this demo to demonstrate one of our products:

    (business “Opportunities” in New York City found on Twitter) http://opportunity.infoglutton.com/Cities/New_York.html

    It’s closely related to what is described in this article. Ok, the demo is not great yet (and some categories are broken and are specific to our target market – restaurants and hotels) and does not fully solve the problem as described here (I would rather have these “categories” directly integrated in Twitter or a Twitter engagement tool), but it’s a start.

    Something I’d like to be able to do as a Twitter user would be to use Twitter search “building blocks”. Each building block would bring, filter, sort, etc. a type of Tweets. For instance, I could combine a “everything related to the hospitality industry” interest block to a “filter out promotional stuff” filter block and a “sort by proximity to my geocode” ranking block.

  11. Jeff Sayre says:

    The issue of signal versus noise in the flow of our information streams is important. In my article Flocking To the Stream, I wrote about the problem of increasing noise each of us faces as more and more people let their thoughts flow down our streams.

    As Twitter does not currently allow a mechanism to channel (filter) our streams, the noise can get much louder as we follow more people. In a follow up article (A Flock of Twitters: Decentralized Semantic Microblogging), I wrote about how decentralized microblogging could solve this–and many other–issues.

  12. Derek says:

    The problem I am coming across is alot of people don’t care about anything-THEY JUST WANT FOLLOWERS. I got thrown into this twitter account recently in a new job and the guy before had gotten over 9,000 followers. Good right? Wrong! Almost everyone he followed were people that just wanted more followers. “I’ll follow you if you follow me.” However, I guess that’s an interest in itself. If you created a list just for these people, great. The problem with the “I want more followers” mentality is they don’t have a certain interest until they have enough followers to feel like they have a platform. Get those people out of the way, and the interest based twittering might work.

  13. Isn’t all Twitter usage interest-based? Granted I have not spent as much time on Twitter as many have, but I follow people based on my interests – and so my Twitter feed only shows me things in which I’m interested. Just because I have an interest in comedy and follow some comedians on Twitter, does not mean I want to follow all comedians that are on Twitter. Twitter allows me to filter out the noise by simply not following those whom I don’t find funny or interesting.

    If publishing is the “the art of determining what is worth paying attention to, by whom” then the beauty of Twitter is that it has made me the publisher. I determine for myself (as does everyone on Twitter) what I find worth paying attention to, and Twitter filters it all for me and puts it in one place so I don’t have to weed through massive amounts of news and information everyday to find what I want to read. If following more people means more noise, then unfollow the ones you consider noisemakers. I don’t need Twitter to tell me what to glean from the users I follow, I can do that for myself.

    What am I missing?

  14. John says:

    Audra, I agree, it’s mulitple filters, people you follow AND interests. How many folks do you follow? Because once you go past around twenty or so folks, there’s just too much to grok in Twitter’s current format.

  15. Evan Williams stated a few days ago that personalization was Twitter’s primary challenge (see http://www.pcworld.com/article/211768/twitters_challenge_personalization_cofounder_says.html)?

    The problem breaks down to:
    i) Find Tweets from the past in my areas of interest and
    ii) Send Tweets of interest to me as they arrive.

    This is not a difficult problem for the right algorithm. :)

    The second problem is reach. Teenagers and young adults overwhelmingly do not use Twitter. A 21 year old responded to my mini-survey today “As far as I am aware, no-one I know uses Twitter. I have no idea why anyone would want to either. Also, I’d say it seems like something slightly older people do.” This 21 year old is a fully paid-up member of the digital age.

    The web is much larger than it was when Google first appeared with an index of about 10 million pages. The adoption rates of new services can be rapid and the adoption rates (the number of users) can be massive. Instead of thousands of early customers or users we now deal with millions and tens of millions of early users. Yet, the ‘rules’ of technology adoption still apply and that eventually you have to cross the chasm to the mainstream market before you have out-of-the-ballpark success.

    My sense is that Twitter is stuck at the early adopter stage and the comments from my mini-survey’s tend to validate this. Considering the size of the Twitter universe of 200m users this is no bad thing and maybe what Twitter should be doing is focusing on monetizing this group only.

    Twitter users are in the main passionate and vociferous about the value of the service just like Apple users are. Apple’s Mac/OX share was piddly compared to Windows but they built a great business out of it through constant innovation which ultimately led to the iPod, iPhone and so on.

  16. Bastian says:

    Hi John,

    this is a great article. You don’t you come over and check out http://www.curated.by – we let you follow topics and interested powered by human curators.

    Have a look here:

    http://www.curated.by/johnbattelle

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