“We don’t put an algorithm between you and your feed.” – Twitter exec Adam Bain, March 2013
“Please do.” Me, today
Twitter has always appealed to tinkerers, to makers, to the people who first took up blogging, who championed RSS and HTML in the early days – you know, the people who created the open web. And because of that, Twitter has always had a strong dose of egalitarianism in its DNA. Twitter expresses that DNA in a particular way: it never decides what you might see in your feed. Whenever you come to the service, you are presented with everything. It’s up to you to figure out what’s valuable.
Compare that to Google, which decides what content you see based on your search query or, more recently, your location (and tons of other data), or Facebook, whose impassive algorithms sift through a sea of friends’ updates and determine what the service, in its ineffable wisdom, decides you will see. Both of these giant companies have, at their core, the idea of editorial judgement - they decide what you see, and for the most part, you have no idea how they made that decision, or why.
Twitter makes no such distinction. And this, of course, has always been both its declared strength and its obvious Achilles heel.
For it is in making editorial judgements that the edges of a media product emerge – and to most of us, Twitter is a media product (it’s certainly an advertising product, which to my mind makes it a media product as well).
In the coming months, I expect Twitter will finally execute a major shift in its approach to our feeds, and roll out an algorithm, not unlike Facebook’s EdgeRank, which consumes the raw material of our feeds and process them into a series of media products that redefine our experience with the service. Doing so will solve for three of Twitter’s most critical business problems/opportunities: Its vexing “I don’t get Twitter” issue, its slowing user growth and engagement, and Wall Street’s ongoing uncertainty around how far the company’s current advertising model can scale (IE, whether it can grow to Facebook or Google level revenues, currently orders of magnitude larger).
Three years ago I wrote Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm: Signal Over Noise (With Major Business Model Implications). My main argument was that Twitter has to figure out how to make my feed valuable to me – a point I’ve been talking about for years. It would take a lot of math, a lot of algorithms, and a lot of trial and error, but ultimately, I wanted Twitter to surprise and delight me each time I came back, and there’s no way a raw feed could do that. In short, I argued that it was time for Twitter to create algorithmically-driven editorial voice, one that presents me media product(s) that extract maximum value out of the feeds I followed.
It’s fair to say that three years later, Twitter hasn’t done what I wished for. Back then, Twitter wasn’t a public company, and its ad business was in its early stages. But today Twitter is a $24 billion public company with strong advertising revenues tracking at more than a billion dollars a year. So what do I know?
Well, I know that the problem still exists, and there’s no way Twitter can grow into (and beyond) its current valuation, much less compete with Facebook and Google, if it doesn’t tack into the waters of editorial judgement. This means Twitter has to stare down its existential DNA problem – it has to be willing to put itself between us and our feeds.
And I think there’s all sorts of opportunity in doing so. I think nearly everyone wants Twitter to try, and while I have no inside information, I’m pretty sure that Twitter is working hard on doing just that. Ever since the company made it clear it didn’t want developers creating consumer facing applications that built new interfaces for the consumption of tweets, the responsibility for creating that value lies squarely with Twitter.
But even as the product and engineering folks at Twitter labor to create these new interfaces, there’s no need for the company to abandon its core philosophy of showing us everything - that should be a mainstay (and differentiating) feature of the service. We just want media products on top of those feeds that mine the best stuff and present it to us in a way that keeps us engaged, provides us significant value, and thereby keeps us coming back. This of course would solve for quite a few other pesky problems – user growth and engagement chief amongst them. Oh, and it’d create the kind of media product that’s rife with signals of user intent - exactly the place where new Twitter ad products can thrive.
Earlier this year I argued that Twitter might encourage a class of “super curators,” a kind of crowd sourced approach to solving the problem, but that’s not enough. For Twitter to grow at Facebook or Google like rates, it has to build a media product that is automated, but feels uniquely “Twitter-y.” And to me, that means making something that exposes its inner workings to its users, and lets those users customize their consumption in ways that can be shared, celebrated, and even commercialized. In Who Owns The Right to Filter Your Feed?, I wrote “No one company can boil the ocean, but together an ecosystem can certainly simmer the sea.”
It’s my hope that Twitter lets its tinkerers, makers, and users help make it better and better. The company’s roots are as a user-driven service. Users came up with hashtags, retweets, and other core Twitter features. One of its most valuable assets is its open DNA – and it needn’t abandon that to create an algorithmically edited version of its main product. In fact, given all the suspicions both Facebook and Google have fostered because of their black box algorithms, a more open approach could be a great strength for any new Twitter product. Show us why your algorithm created a particular media product, and let us play around with making it better. I’d bet that plenty of folks would love to do just that. I know I would.