Startups are expected to become corporate behemoths that lead a variety of markets. That’s why they’re called “startups” instead of “small businesses” and are able to raise millions of dollars before turning a profit. They start as itty-bitty companies that do one thing well and, assuming they survive, become sprawling companies that do seemingly everything. Google started as a search company, Facebook was a glorified yearbook, and Amazon used to be an online books seller. Now they’re all large, multi-market companies gracing the cover of the Economist.
Now it’s Twitter’s turn. It’s already a popular microblogging service through which its users share their thoughts and lives in 140-character snippets, but that’s not where its ambitions end. Besides expected improvements to its apps, the introduction of services like Twitter #music and Vine are meant to help the soon-to-be public company become something more.
“When I look at Twitter and compare it to other companies, I tend to think of what I call horizontal platforms,” says Gartner analyst Brian Blau. “They offer a lot of apps and services that their users can enjoy to keep people within their ecosystems. Twitter is going to follow this model.”
Put another way: Twitter is about to spread its wings.
The service has long acted as a directory of sorts by allowing its users to sign on, follow a few accounts, and allow the service to unearth the best the Web has to offer. From there they were taken to different websites and applications; once they grew bored they could return to Twitter and repeat the process. They might even make a pithy joke or “build their personal brand,” whatever that means.
That’s starting to change. Twitter introduced new features, such as its Aviary-powered photo filters or the Cards that allow users to watch videos or read article snippets without ever leaving Twitter, to make sure people stayed put.
Then it started to develop new apps and services — #music and Vine — that would become destinations unto themselves. Twitter #music might not have worked as well as the company hoped, given its low adoption and general irrelevance, but Vine has become a breakaway success — and it doesn’t even feature Twitter’s branding.
And then, finally, Twitter is reportedly preparing to change its mobile apps to bring private messages and conversations to the forefront. The company fiddled with the previously sacred reverse chronological flow of items shared to its service with the new conversations view, which plucks tweets from their places on this river of information and moves ‘em upstream, where they’re more likely to be seen over and over again.
These changes all make Twitter something people are more likely to interact with instead of something they visit and leave. That’s going to become increasingly important as the company prepares to go public, largely because the service is said to struggle with attracting new users and making sure they keep coming back to the service.
“Everything that Twitter is doing right now is to make sure that all their ducks are in a row,” Blau says. “They have to look as good as possible, because they have one job for the next couple of months, which is to convince investors to give them a lot of money.”
That means that the company needs to show that it can grow, both in terms of total user numbers and engagement. Doing so might not please existing users, who would prefer that the service stay “weird,” but it might entice newcomers. And there will always be other services that appeal to Twitter users who feel jilted by the service’s changes.
Consider App.net, the social service that began as a Twitter alternative and has since tried to become a sign-on service for the entire Web. Because the service collects a monthly fee from many of its users it has remained small and deliciously nerdy (so far as such a thing can exist) with a strong sense of community. It’s a place where people can read a global feed of everything shared across its Twitter-like service and understand what people are talking about, no conversation view required.
Does that mean people will jump from Twitter to App.net? Probably not any more than Facebook’s increased focus on making information public affected jumps to Path. But Twitter’s newfound desire to become something with which people regularly interact instead of the Web’s transportation hub just might allow these other, dedicated services to grow. Consumers are like childhood friends: as much as they say they’ve got your best interests at heart, they’ll often do their damnedest to keep you to themselves.
Twitter is spreading its wings. Now it just needs to discover how many of its users are ready to leave the nest — and how many more might decide to join its flock.
(PandoDaily’s special report on anti-social networks is sponsored by Life360. Learn more about Life360 at http://www.life360.com)
[Image courtesy Winfrith Graphics]