Today scores of big companies are taking symbolic action to defend the essential principles of an open Internet, and I support them. That’s why, on your first visit here today, you’ll see the “spinning ball of death” up on the right. For more information about the Internet Slowdown, head here.
Recently I began a walkabout of sorts, with a goal of ameliorating my rather thin understanding of the mobile marketplace. If you read me closely, you know I’ve been more than frustrated with what I call the “chicletized world” of disconnected mobile apps. It’s rise was so counter to everything I loved about the Internet, I’m afraid as a result I underestimated its impact on that very world.
My corrective starting point – the metaphorical bit of yarn upon which I felt compelled to tug – was the impact of “deep linking” on the overall ecosystem. The phrase has something of a “dark pool” feel to it, but it’s actually a rather mundane concept: Developers tag their mobile apps and – if relevant – their complementary websites – with a linking structure that allows others to link directly into various points of entry into their applications. This is why, for example, you can jump from a Google search for “Tycho” on your phone to the “Tycho” page inside your Spotify app.
So far, I’ve had more than a dozen or so meetings and phone calls on the subject, and I’ve begun to formulate some working theses about what’s happening out there. While my education continues, here are some initial findings:
1. Deep linking is indeed a Very Big Deal. Nearly all the folks I spoke with believed deep linking in mobile was the beginning of something important, something I’ve started to call…
2. The Quickening… which I believe is nearly upon us. Mobile app developers are humans driven by business goals. If the business opportunity is large, but proscribed by narrow rules, they will follow those rules to gain the initial opportunity. For example, when the convener of a new market (Apple) imposes strict rules about how data is shared, and how apps must behave with regard to each other, app builders will initially conform, and behaviors will fall narrowly in line for a cycle or two (in this case, about five years). However, once those rules prove burdensome, businesses will look for ways around them. This is happening in mobile, for reasons that come down to new competitive players (primarily Android) and to a maturation in distribution, revenue, and engagement models (more on that below). The end result: The market is about to enter a phase of “quickening” – a rapid increase in linking between apps and web-like backends, harkening a new ecosystem in which both foreseeable and unforseen “life” will be created.
2. App Installs Rule. Till They Don’t. The market for mobile apps is – predictably – driven by app installs. And unless you’re the teen viral sensation of the moment, the only reliable way to get app installs is to buy them – almost exclusively via advertising on mobile devices. Facebook figured this out, and holy cow, did the market love that. But app makers are now realizing they have to do more than get their app installed. It’s actually just as critical to get their current installed base to actually engage with their app – lest it be forever relegated to the dustbin that is our current (deeply crappy) mobile desktop metaphor. Hence the rise of “re-engagement advertising,” which is serving as something akin to search-engine marketing (SEM) in the desktop web. Several folks I spoke to told me that 80% of the money in mobile advertising is in app installs, but they quickly cautioned that installs are a house of cards which will not be sustained absent the rise of re-engagement advertising.
3. We’ve Seen This Movie. Which got me thinking. Jeez, have we ever seen this movie before. It’s called publishing. You can buy crappy circulation, crappy audiences, and crappy one-time visitors, and you can also buy great audiences, but the true gauge of a publication, a service, or an app is whether folks keep coming back. And even if you have a great app/service/publication, you need to remind them of your existence more than a few times before they are hooked (this is why classic magazine circulation has three phases – marketing, sampling, and conversion). The link-economy of the open web allowed this process to happen rather naturally, but there is no such economy in mobile, at least not yet. Thanks to early decision made by the conveners of the mobile ecosystem, mobile is deeply shitty at providing business owners with a way of reminding consumers about the value of their proposition, which is why they are frantic for some kind of channel for doing just that. This leads me to hypothesize that…
4. The App Store’s Days Are Limited. Remember when Yahoo! owned Web 1.0, because it had the entire Web in its directory? Or when Google owned Web 2.0, because it put the entire web in RAM? Yep, both those models created massive companies, along with massive ecosystems, but neither hegemony lasted forever. Apple’s App Store (and Google’s) are subject to the same forces. The model may be dominant, but it’s not going to last. As one senior executive in mobile media put it: “The app store is a weigh station, not an end point.” What might replace the App Store as a model for distribution? That’s a fine question, and one I don’t have a strong opinion about, at least not yet. But I sense the Quickening will lay the groundwork for new vectors of app adoption and engagement, similar – but not identical - to the link economy of the web. Which is why I believe…
5. Re-engagement ads open the door to new topologies (and economics) across mobile. A pretty obvious point, if you’ve managed to stay with me to this point, but one I think is worth restatement and elaboration. Re-engagement advertising is driven by a fundamental business (and consumer) need, and Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Yahoo!, and Google are all responding with deep linking topologies that enable re-engagement. This is a relatively new development, and it’s hard to predict where it might go. But one thing’s for sure – deep linking is good for both the developer and the consumer. It’s just a better experience to go directly into the exact right place inside an app that’s already on your phone. And for marketers, deep linking enables far superior “landing pages” inside their apps, driving a conversion path that is measurable and repeatable. It’s not hard to imagine that re-engagement is the beginning of a more robust economic model for mobile, one that will re-integrate much of the goodness we created when the Web broke wide open ten or more years ago. And that makes me wonder if….
6. The home screen of “chiclets” is mutable. Broadly established consumer engagement models don’t shift rapidly, and the colorful, 16×16 sudoku model of App World isn’t going away anytime soon. But do we really believe we’ll be poking at squares representing apps forever? I don’t. A more fluid experience based on declared and modeled intent makes a lot more sense – one in which we flow seamlessly from need to need, serviced in each state by a particular application without having to pull back, chose a new app, and then dive back in. I’ve not yet spoken to many UX/UI folks, but I sense this is coming, and deep linking is a first step in enabling it. Somehow, I sense that…
7. Search is key to all of this. Hey, this is Searchblog, after all. It strikes me that search on mobile is pretty broken, because it forces the entirety of the web onto a model that has far more specific – and useful – parameters to work with. The signals emanating from a mobile phone give search entirely new use cases, but so far, we’ve got precious little to show for it. This can’t stand for long.
I’ve got a lot more thinking going on, but it’s too nascent to be of much use at the moment. Topics I’m also thinking about include mapping the dependencies of the mobile ecosystem, grokking the concept of “agency” and how it relates to search and mobile data, the role of programmatic in mobile, and understanding the flow of money between the big platforms and the little guys.
As you can probably tell, my comprehension of this space is still very limited, but I hope this update sparks some of your own thinking, and that you might share those insights with me in comments or via email or other forms of media. I will continue my walkabout in coming weeks, and I’ll keep writing about it here. Thanks for reading.
And thanks to the many folks I spoke with so far, many of whom are working on stealth projects or agreed to our conversations on background. Hence, I’ve not quoted anyone directly, but again, thanks, and you know who you are!
Else is back after an extended summer hiatus – thanks for taking the time off with me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to return to this newsletter, but its a good ritual for me to condense and annotate my daily and weekly reading habits, and enough of you have subscribed that I figured you might be missing the updates. I kind of was.
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The pieces I most enjoyed over the past week or so certainly had a theme: How will we resolve our increasingly uneasy relationship to the technology we have embraced? From automated newsfeeds to drones to AI, this stuff isn’t science fiction anymore, and the consequences are getting very real. To the links….
“Facebook Is a Weatherless World” (Searchblog)
In which I think about automated newsfeeds and a world without agency.
Inside Google’s Secret Drone-Delivery Program (The Atlantic)
Well, not exactly secret anymore, as Google certainly wanted this particular story to get out, as it’s in a mad scramble for the future of “everything delivery” with Amazon and others. Still and all a fascinating look into one of Google’s many strange and disparate moonshots.
Berkeley prof. Ken Goldberg lays out the quickening sparked by the combination of cloud compute and intelligent on the ground (or in the air) robots.
One of my favorite writers (Paul Ford) imagines what it might be like if all these drones and robots actually work in an optimistic scenario feature driverless cars, compostable made to order clothing, and, of course, budding romance.
It’s not easy to be human, so relax. The AI-driven roboto-verse will serve us, in the main.
ICREACH: How the NSA Built Its Own Secret Google (The Intercept)
Then again, we might want to worry about our own power structures. Imagine how the NSA might use the fantasy infrastructure that Ford creates in Medium. Yikes.
Why Uber must be stopped (Salon)
A few things about this piece. First, the headline is wrong. It’s not about stopping Uber, it’s about understanding the role of regulation when capitalism otherwise goes unchecked. Second, it appropriately wonders what happens when capital (Uber’s $1.5billion from Google, Goldman, et al) is used to crush competition, in particular, when the company that is doing the crushing has, as its end game, control of our automated transportation system (there are those dern robots again). A theme for our coming age. It’s not the cars, the drones, the tech – it’s the people behind their use. But sometimes, the way a society regulates people is to regulate the tech they employ.
Should journalists use all caps in headlines?! Apparently yes. This story is consistent with the others in this issue of Else, the debate is in full throat. See also The Atlantic’s The New Editors of the Internet.
Continuing my headline clickbait complaint, this headline is a total misfit for the unfortunately dry story, written by noted informational academic Lucian Floridi. He’s got a new book out, the 4th Revolution, which I plan to read. Then again, I have five books ahead of his…
Supercomputers make discoveries that scientists can’t (New Scientist)
See, we’ve found a great use for computers: Reading the stuff too dry to read ourselves.
My first job as a reporter was in 1987 covering Apple. For more than a decade after, I continued covering the company, through Jobs’ return. It never wavered in its philosophy around how it treated the press – as a nuisance and a threat. I’ve always thought Apple could have done better. This multi-part post fails to go as deep as I’d like, but it’s a decent overview of how Apple’s PR machine works.
Minecraft has been on my “watch this closely” list for about a year. Here’s another reason why.
The Matter With Time (NY)
If you like your inside baseball with a side of dish, here’s a great read about the travails of Time Inc., the once great publishing house.
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We are at a turning point in the mobile app ecosystem where deeplinking is becoming a priority and not just a feature. – URX blog
This week marks the beginning of a journey I’m taking to understand “deep linking” in mobile. I’ve kept one eye on the space for some time, but it’s clearly heating up. Last Spring three major mobile players – Facebook, Google, and Apple – all announced significant developments in deep linking. Twitter has also fortified its deep linking capabilities of late, as has Yahoo.
Most of these major players are supporting deep linking for commercial reasons – their business is driven by advertising, and a huge cut of mobile advertising revenues are in turn driven by app installs. Marketers want to be able to link directly to specific places inside their apps, so they can drive qualified leads to convert (and measure effectiveness/optimize campaigns). To be clear, these are the ads that show up inside apps on your mobile phone encouraging you to download a free game or service. These install ads make up a huge percentage of mobile advertising revenue, though it’s hard to find hard figures for exactly what percentage. Current estimates range between 30 and 50% - either way, that makes them the largest category of mobile advertising, period.
This all reminds me of how search played out on the desktop Web – search was a huge percentage of overall “online advertising” revenues in the early days, but it took a while before analysts started breaking search out as a category independent of “online advertising.” Twenty years into search, that category still represents more than 40% of all online ad revenues. So yep, I’m watching deep linking, because I think there’s a big there there.
But there’s a funny hitch to the evolution of linking inside our mobile ecosystem. On the Web, the link is pretty much the atomic unit of value – from the get go, *anyone* could create a link from one web page to another. The web was built on links, and in the early days those links were built, for the most part, by *users* of the web – people like you and me. We built link-heavy websites, we blogged and linked profusely, we emailed links around, and in doing so we connected static web pages one to another, all in the name of navigation, discovery, and ease of use. It was only later, as search rose to prominence and people started to realize the commercial value of links, that the SEO industry became a commercial monster. In short, linking behavior predated commercial exploitation.
But in the mobile web, commercial exploitation is driving linking behavior, and I find that fascinating. Certainly there’s any number of reasons for this, from Apple’s early iOS design decisions to the fact that apps are, for the most part, personalized experiences that are not driven by the early web’s model of static pages meant for consumption by any and all comers. Regardless, I’ve got a hunch about deep linking - I’m hoping it’s the seedbed for a major shift in how we experience mobile computing. For now, mobile deep linking is the purview of developers and savvy mobile marketers. But I think in time this may change. I wrote a bit about that hunch here:
…while developer-driven deep links are great, the next step in mobile won’t really take off until average folks like you and I can easily create and share our own links within apps. Once the “consumers” start creating links, mobile will finally break out of this ridiculous pre-web phase it’s been stuck in for the past seven or so years, and we’ll see a mobile web worthy of its potential.
I imagine a time when applications encourage their users to share links from inside apps, and everyone finds that sharing behavior will create a positive feedback loop similar to the one that drove the rise of the original Web. From there, any number of innovations will arise, speculating on what those might be is worthy of several future posts.
For now, I’ve come across a crop of startups focusing on deep linking as well various industry efforts in the field (I have Semil Shah and Roy Bahat, among others, to thank for my early lessons in the space). In the coming weeks, I’m meeting with many of them, including URX, Kahuna, Deeplink, Appboy and several stealth startups, and of course larger players like Twitter. As I get smart, and if I find interesting stuff, I’ll report back here. In the meantime, if you’ve got any suggestions for me, please leave them in comments or ping me on Twitter. Thanks!
“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.
I went on Bloomberg today, ostensibly to talk about data marketing, NewCo, and anything newsworthy. Turns out, we talked (mostly) about Apple. Bloomberg’s got the video up here, and embedded below. While I understand the headline – Battelle: “Apple Failed to Be Apple” – that’s not exactly my point. And it’s a good thing we’ve got these here blogs, to expand on what otherwise might be a skewed version of the record.
So, what I meant to convey was that Apple was in fact very much Apple, just not the Apple the press (and by extension, the general public) has been trained to expect over the past decade. Apple is the company that wows folks with market-changing hardware releases – the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. And there was none of that yesterday or today. Instead, we got a litany of incremental updates which, from my point of view, were necessary, but not particularly interesting. I mean, improvements on photos, cloud, messaging, developer tools, and a new (but not particularly world changing) OS? Yup, all needed. But nothing industry shaking here, move along.
(Oh, and by the way, Apple bought Beats. It didn’t announce a new hardware play in entertainment, did it? Nope, it bought Beats. And then ignored that fact, save a phone call to Dr. Dre, in its stage craft. Hmmm).
Of course, Apple also announced hand-waving in Health and Home – and trust me, that’s what it was. Because Apple has absolutely no track record in creating modern consumer software services, you know, the kind that iterate based on consumer data (like Dropbox, or Instagram, or Whatsapp, or HangOuts, or SnapChat, for example). But the press ate that shit up, because these days, the press wants to believe Apple is going to redefine a category. And, by the way, I am sure Apple will. Just not this year.
Now, two decades ago, developers would have done backflips for the pedestrian updates announced this week – they are all super important and help everyone in the ecosystem create more value. But that’s where it would have ended. But by the standards Apple has created for itself these past seven years, I’d say Apple did fail to be Apple. But given who Apple was over the past 30 years, this week Apple very much *was* Apple, once again.
Since the news that Google+ chief Vic Gundotra has abruptly left the company, the common wisdom holds that Google’s oft-derided Facebook clone will not be long for this world. But whether or not Google+ continues as a standalone product isn’t the question. Google likely never cared if Google+ “won” as a competitor to Facebook (though if it did, that would have been a nice bonus). All that mattered, in the end, was whether Plus became the connective tissue between all of Google’s formerly scattered services. And in a few short years, it’s fair to say it has.
As I wrote three years ago , the rise of social and mobile created a major problem for Google – all of a sudden, people were not navigating their digital lives through web-based search alone, they were also using social services like Facebook – gifting that company a honeypot of personal information along the way – as well as mobile platforms and apps, which existed mainly outside the reach of web-based search.
If Google was going to compete, it had to find a way to tie the identity of its users across all of its major platforms, building robust profiles of their usage habits and the like along the way. Google countered with Android and Google+, but of the two, only Android really had to win. Google+ was, to my mind, all about creating a first-party data connection between Google most important services – search, mail, YouTube, Android/Play, and apps.
Think about your relationship to Google five years ago – you most likely weren’t “logged in,” unless you were using a silo’d service like mail. Now think about it today – you most likely are. We have Google+ to thank for that. It’s done its job, and it’ll keep doing it, whether or not you ever use its social bells and whistles as a primary social network.
Google still has a lot of work to do on identity – anyone who has more than one login can attest to that. But Google+ has won – it’s forced the majority of Google users onto a single, signed in state across devices and applications. That protects and extends Google’s core advertising business, and opens up the ability to ladder new services – like Nest – into Google’s platform.
Welcome back to Else – I took a week off for Spring break, so this covers two weeks of the best stories related to the work I’m doing on the book. Reflecting an increased focus on Google, this edition of Else is flush with Google news, from its purchase of Titan Aerospace to its unusual willingness to show us a peek behind the curtain of Google X. Google also had a confounding earnings release, took steps to consolidate power in the hands of its founders (again), and had an entertaining wrinkle in its ongoing tiff with European publishers.
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To the links:
In fact, Google is growing – earning prove it – but the point here, cribbed from asymco, is that as goes Internet penetration, so goes Google, and the Internet is growing far more slowly than it used to. This points to two things – one, the need to own “the next 2 billion” people who have yet to get on the Internet – this is why Facebook and Google are buying drone makers – and two, the need to get into entirely new lines of business – which explains Nest, among other things.
Matt Ingram takes a strong POV on recent moves by the Internet giants to insure shareholders don’t have much power. It’s all legal, and it’s also unsettling. Are we putting too much faith in companies that have cheery mission statements and trustworthy CEOs? At what point do we need more influence over them, or do we?
A very detailed overview of how Google has become a very large player in DC. A timely piece.
YouTube is the largest music app in the world, but no one sees it that way. Soon, we will. It’s critical that Google get this one right.
Jarvis takes off the gloves and beats up Axel Springer, a company for whom I have far more sympathy, even if I do agree, in the end, you can’t cry in your beer. All of this keys off a very public back and forth between Eric Schmidt and the CEO of Axel.
A very well done article “experience” about the future and present of streaming music. Bravo.
A history of how Google tried to put the Android genie back in the bottle.
Take that, Facebook!
An overview of the recent book Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science. This is now on my reading list – seems to be an important new work on the impact of data on our society.
Amazon strikes me as the most natural competitor to Google, not Apple.
It’s unusual to see Google open up like this. Seems part of a larger strategy worth watching.
A historic year – until you realize, the distinction between TV ads and “internet” ads is false. TV is an app of the Internet, or soon will be.
Fascinating to see how this approach to visualization has informed our understanding of data.
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Lost in the latest Facebook kerfuffle (if you’ve missed it, read this cheeky Eat24 post, and the hundreds of articles it prompted) is the fact that we all seemed quite confused about what Facebook’s newsfeed is supposed to be. Is it an intimate channel for peer to peer communication, where you stay in touch with people who matter to you? Is is a place you go to find out what’s happening in the world at large, a watercooler of sorts, a newspaper, as Zuckerberg has said? Is it a marketing channel, where any brand can pay for the right to pitch you things based on your stated or inferred interests? Is it all of these things? Can it be?
We’re in the midst of finding out. Of course, I have an opinion. It boils down to this: Facebook’s newsfeed should be what I tell it to be, not what Facebook – or anyone else – tells me it should be. If I want to fill my newsfeed with Eat24 sushi porn, then it should be brimming with it. If I tell it to only show musings from Dwight Schrute and Marc Cuban, then that’s what I want to see. If I love what Mickey D’s is posting and want to see the best of their posts as determined by engagement, then Big Mac me. And if I prefer to keep it to my immediate family, then damnit, show me that.
If the cost of giving me that kind of control is that I have to see a marketer’s post every five or six entries, I’m cool with that. That’s what Twitter does, and it doesn’t bother me, it’s table stakes, I get it. But what I think Facebook’s got wrong is where they’ve instrumented the controls. Facebook spends an inordinate amount of time and energy tweaking a black box set of algorithms to figure out what it thinks I want in my feed, boiling an ever-larger ocean of content into a stream of stuff it believes I want. For reasons I can’t fathom, it doesn’t give me the chance to truly curate my feed, beyond some clunky lists and filters which, from what I can tell, are only good for blocking people or indicating preference for a particular feed (but not saying, for example, “show me everything from this source.”)
Facebook is therefore viewed as paternalistic – it has a vibe of “we’ll figure out what’s best to show you.” You have *some* input into the feed, but you are not encouraged to actively curate it the way you can curate friends or brands on Instagram or Twitter (and I think both have a long way to go as well). I think Facebook could trump all this debate once and for all by putting the end-user of its service in charge, and iterating the newsfeed based on that feedback. Scary, perhaps, but ultimately liberating and, more importantly, truly authentic. Over time, the value will accrue back. As we say around the office at NewCo, give (control) to get (benefit back).
Twitter’s lack of growth over the past few months has quickly become its defining narrative – witness Inside Twitter’s plan to fix itself from Quartz, which despite the headline, fails to actually explain anything about said plan.
As with most things I write about Twitter, I have no particular inside knowledge of the company’s plans, but I’ve written over and over about its core failing, and promise. In 2008 (!) I suggested “TweetSense“, and in 2011, I wrote Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm: Signal Over Noise (With Major Business Model Implications). It opens with this:
My goal in this post is to outline what I see as the biggest challenge/opportunity in the company’s path. And to my mind, it comes down to this: Can Twitter solve its signal to noise problem?
I go on to say that it most certainly has to, because solving the problem allows it to attach sponsored advertisements (promoted tweets in particular) to just the right timelines in just the right context. I called the solution “TweetWords” – because AdWords came before AdSense. Twitter’s promoted tweets product did in fact evolve toward interest-based targeting – alas, in one way only, as far as I can tell. Advertisers can target Twitter users based on their interests (as expressed by what they tweet, retweet, follow, etc.), but they can’t place their promoted tweets contextually into timelines (IE, in a manner that “fits” with the content around them). **Update. Twitter has had keyword targeting – a key step in contextual ad targeting – for a year now. I missed this. My apologies.
So far, there’s no such thing as TweetSense or TweetWords – where ads are contextual to the stream in which they appear. It seems Twitter has not focused on this particular problem – and it may not have to. Revenues are doing extremely well, and Twitter is clearly opening up new forms of advertising based on larger formats, video (Vine), and cards.
But if the core problem of understanding individual timelines as context is not going to be solved, it’d be a shame – because solving that problem will address Twitter’s core signal to noise issue as well. Here’s more from that 2011 post:
If Twitter can assign a rank, a bit of context, a “place in the world” for every Tweet as it relates to every other Tweet and to every account on Twitter, well, it can do the same job for every possible advertiser on the planet, as they relate to those Tweets, those accounts, and whatever messaging the advertiser might have to offer. In short, if Twitter can solve its signal to noise problem, it will also solve its revenue scale problem. It will have built an auction driven marketplace where advertisers can bid across those hundreds of millions of tweets for the the right to position relevant messaging in real time.
I still think this is a huge opportunity for Twitter, and not for revenue reasons. I get a ton of value out of the Twitter platform, but I don’t turn to it for news and happenings anymore. I follow too many people, and managing multiple screens on Tweetdeck is just too much work. Instead, I depend on great curators like Jason Hirschorn and his team at MediaReDEF – essentially the morning newspaper for folks like me – and a number of machine-driven services that consume my feed and spit back the most popular shared stories (News.me, Percolate, etc).
I find the machine services are predictable, but Jason’s service is top notch – he’s an Editor’s Editor. His stuff, along with folks like Dave Pell, have become my go to these days. But Twitter can’t get the mass market users on its system via human curation – or can it?
Back when Twitter was small and the signal was high, I found a lot of value in my Twitter feed. Individuals who were great curators were my favorite follow. Over time my feed clogged with too many other types of folks – and I’ve never found a tool that can help me get back to those halcyon days where the best stuff rose to the top. Twitter’s Discover tab is interesting, but lacks instrumentation. Wouldn’t it be cool if Twitter somehow elevated the best curators on its platform in some way – promoting their work and helping them gain audience? Sure, it’d feel a lot like the old “who to follow” of the old days (and there was much to criticize with that system), but given how much Twitter now knows about its own platform, it might be a pretty powerful half-step toward giving people a better handle on the richness the platform has to offer. It’d be a great, lightweight way to start using the service, and for power users who have bankrupted their feeds (IE, me), it could really change the game.
I’d love a service on Twitter that pointed out the best curators for any given topic where I’ve indicated a strong interest (and my interests have already been mapped by Twitter, for purposes of promoted tweets). Further – and this is important – I’d love for Twitter to break out those feeds for me as part of its core service – a sort of Headline News to its constant 24-Hour barrage. It’d mean a break with the one-size-fits-all mentality of the main Twitter stream, but I think such a break is overdue.
Chances are, Twitter’s already explored and dismissed these ideas, but…are they crazy?