Twitterversary: What next for the birdwatching trade?

Twitter verb

: to make fast and usually high sounds

: to talk in a quick and informal way about unimportant things

That’s the dictionary entry I found for Twitter, dating back to a time before the word became eponymous with the social networking service, which does, seemingly, live up to its dictionary definition.

Why bring it up now? My love affair with Twitter has probably got to do something with my indefatigable interest in all things unimportant in life. So, in recent times, having run out of friends celebrating their anniversaries or kids’ birthday parties, I’ve had to find solace in something way less important… insignificant… trivial… unworthy… enough said… there’s been this small matter of Twitter celebrating (ahem!) its first anniversary as a public company. One year ago, Twitter listed its shares on the stock exchange, so that, you, your uncle, and aunt, the stranger you met at the pub last night, the random guy you follow on Twitter, the girl you swiped past on Tinder, Alex from Target… and such and such – all could own a micro-fractional part of Twitter, the company. That’s the day @Twitter became $TWTR. In the time since, the flight path of $TWTR shares would make even the bird of the finest plumage look second best – from vertical lift-offs, to rapid somersaults, the sudden directional switch, the nosedive… there’s hardly a trick which the iconic blue bird (ref: Twitter logo) has failed to deliver. Let’s cheer and chirp for the anniversary of the birdwatching trade… some unimportant things are exhilarating after all!

Course correction. Anyways, to put things into context, many months before Twitter went public, I did eulogize it as the likely next member of the 100 billion dollar club #PathTo100bln. In my tweet-log, I had outlined why, when, and most importantly, how Twitter was going to get there. So, this is a good moment to take stock. At the time, Twitter’s valuation in private markets was an earth shattering $10 billion. After all the ups and downs as a public company in the last year, at the time of writing this piece, Twitter’s valuation stands at a not-so-earth-shattering $25 billion (times have changed, the earth has moved on!). Those of you who share my passion for birdwatching are aware that, at this point in time, there’s tremendous cynicism amongst the community of dedicated birdwatchers regarding the blue bird’s future prospects… the bird is flying astray, rudderless, some would say it’s on a path of inevitable self-destruction. Then, there are the believers out there who continue to believe the bird can be put back on the right trajectory. What holds true is that nearly everyone belonging to either the niche community of birdwatchers, the not-so-niche community of Twitter’s 284 million monthly-active tweeters, and even some from the not-niche-at-all community of non-tweeting non-birdwatching types – all have an opinion on the possible path of course correction.

Let’s be clear about where I stand on this. As I’ve often enunciated, I like to put my life in the context of a few big themes happening in the world during my brief period of existence on this planet. I ardently believe that social media – the way we connect, communicate and access information – is one of those big themes playing out at this point in time. That underlies my description of the TGLF (Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Facebook) communities being an emerging global social and economic demographic of a scale comparable to the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries. In case you missed it, last month Facebook surpassed China in terms of population. I remain as passionate as ever on the potential of social media both as a communication revolution, and as an investment story in the long term – well, at least for the next decade or so. That said, I do share the general mood of frustration about the way Twitter itself has evolved. How the price of its shares performed in the small matter of a year is a trivial detail in the larger scheme of things. My frustration stems from how the Twitter product itself has evolved during this time.

Re-igniting the fire. Twitter is yet to receive the mainstream embrace and global cross-demographic penetration of Facebook. The functionality hasn’t evolved. The vision looks blurred. I’ll leave the job of taking Twitter management to task for their alleged abject failure to the Wall-streeters and journalistic types – they draw immense pleasure in flaying the skin of others. Instead, in what follows, I delineate five fundamental steps that Twitter can take to re-inforce and expand its appeal and potential to transform the way people connect, communicate and access information.

  1. Simplify, not complexify: Life is a chaotic experience. Anything which organizes and provides pattern to this chaos has value (you can see why I am inspired by the Random Walk). Twitter’s original appeal stemmed from organizing the chaos of data into a steady stream of orderly byte sized chunks of information. Those engineering types in charge of product at Twitter appear to have forgotten this. Recent changes to Twitter have all revolved around providing more information to users – in other words, adding to the chaos. E.g. users were not clicking on their Twitter timelines enough; so in a recent upgrade of its app, in addition to the Home and Discover timelines, Twitter added a third Activity timeline That’s the sort of thing designed to window-dress short term usage stats for the benefit of the Wall-streeters without having any appeal to the end-user. As Facebook found a long time ago, multiple timelines don’t work. Sometimes less is better – and one single timeline is better than two, or three. Twitter would do better to stick to one timeline (no Activity clutter please!) and focus on making other priceless features such as Trends, Lists, Search and Profile Page more prominent and accessible. Remember your origins.
  1. Follow interests, not people: All successful technological breakthroughs that have attracted a new group of users beyond the core early adopters had one thing in common – when you sign up, you know exactly what you’re going to do – that’s why all Google had on it’s home page was a search box – users were coming there to look for something specific and Google’s design made it easy to do so – Google made it fundamentally easier to find information. Most people come to Twitter to look for real time information on topics of interest and interact with others who share that interest – that’s why Twitter users invented the hashtag. Yet, you can’t follow hashtags – instead to curate your timeline, you have to either access the hashtag through the search box or follow a number of people who tweet about the hashtag or topic you are interested in. Simpler solution – allow people to curate their timeline by following a few hashtags. A monkey can figure out what to do if you ask it to sign up for Facebook (look for my monkey friends) or Google (search banana). Does monkey know what to do with Twitter? Actually, monkey would love to click #banana, and find lots of banana in real time. That’s one happy monkey. Twitter, please make monkey happy! When someone first signs into Twitter, just show them a clear page with some topics/ interests/ hashtags to follow – you’ve got them hooked. Monkey business is good.
  1. Consume, not produce: Most people are consumers of information, not producers. Also, the vast majority of people are private by nature –people are inherently nervous about letting others know what they are doing, unless they have to. Take Google again – Google played a great role in the growth of the internet by attracting a large base of information consumers – as any economist would tell you, if there are consumers, the producers will come, and so the web developed. Also, you never had to tell anybody what you were searching for on Google – at least that’s what Google had you believe! Twitter’s growth so far has been production led – the information producers are there, and so are the more open-minded consumers who don’t have an aversion to interacting in public. To grow beyond this core user group, Twitter has to reach out to users who are never going to tweet, and don’t want anyone to know which tweets they are reading – let’s call them Private Passives. Let me assure you, this user base exists, and in fact they are what Twitter refers to as the hundreds of millions of logged-out users that are accessing its content. Instead of trying to convert these private information consumers into public information producers, Twitter needs to improve its consumption features. That is why Twitter needs to emphasise the search box over the tweet box. The expectation to tweet is what deters many new Twitter users and Twitter’s been steadily exacerbating their misery by repeatedly popping the question “What’s happening?” Avoid. Giving answers is better than asking questions.
  1. Multi-app information ecosystem: If you’ve looked at the Android Play store for apps, you’ll find the top 5 downloaded apps are 1) FB Messenger 2) Whatsapp 3) Facebook 4) Instagram 5) Skype. I assume you’ve spotted that all of the top 4 apps are Facebook property – they’ve successfully evolved beyond the flagship Facebook app to creating an ecosystem of multiple apps. This way Facebook are able to provide a tailored product for multiple different consumer segments and their changing preferences. Ironically, it was Twitter that had the lead here with its Vine video app, but then let it fizzle. Clearly, Twitter needs to experiment a lot more with new apps. Twitter strength as a platform is its real time information repository, and Twitter has the great opportunity to build customized apps for different customer segments to allow them to interact with that information in the manner they want. So, for instance, the flagship Twitter app works great for the Content Producers and Active Tweeters. To get the Private Passives, I referred to above, why not build another app that allows them to search for tweets or create private curated timelines without ever having to disclose their identity. Surely, that’s one way of bringing those so called logged out users under the Twitter umbrella. Sadly, Twitter panders to the Wall-streeters by talking about monetizing them, instead of focusing on engaging them first. Engage first, monetize later.
  1. Twitter+TV: Disintermediation is one of the bigger themes I speak about – everything is being disintermediated – from taxis (Uber) to hotel rooms (Airbnb) to energy (SolarCity) to finance (the gazillion crowdfunders). Twitter is also a disintermediation platform – it disintermediates content and information. Obviously, television content content gotta be disintermediated. I don’t watch much TV – my wife sometimes does, but we still have a cable connection. That sounds archaic, but I checked with some friends – and they all still have cable connections too. By now, we all should have been getting our TV content via the internet. Ok, you may argue that’s what Netflix does – but Netflix is not a disintermediation platform – they buy content and, in turn, you buy it from them. Real TV disintermediation would be content producers tweeting their content, you click on tweet and stream it to your TV with a Now TV or Amazon Kindle Fire stick. This can get real big – Twitter has the platform to make it happen. The next big disruptive disintermediation.

Agonizingly, many of the solutions I have outlined above appear obvious. Some of them may work, some of them not. It is also very likely that some of the solutions I mentioned have practical constraints to implementation. But my point here is about approach – what Twitter needs are a small number of fundamental changes to refine its product offering for the long term. The current wild goose chase of wishful thinking and mindless tweaks to ramp up stats is not gonna work. Like a classic Hitchcock movie, we are at a point of heightened suspense in Twitter’s plot. Will Twitter live up to it’s potential? Will the bird soar again, or have the wings been clipped? Can it overcome the roadblocks on its #PathTo100bln? The answers to some of these questions will unravel in the years to come. It would take something profoundly seismic to make Twitter disappear completely, but let’s face it, that’s a distinct possibility. The base case, however, remains that Twitter is here to stay – how far and fast it grows out of its current niche depends on the actions taken to develop the product offering. Over the long term, I do believe a positive feedback loop would play itself out. Fasten your seat belts. Happy birdwatching!


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