Okay, Twitter, you've done good by your advertisers. But remember your users?
Twitter has had an extremely busy year. Thanks to the US elections, a constant presence in the media, and some high-profile new users, Twitter has become a mainstream social network, now counting more than 170 million active users and seeing half a billion Tweets a day. It is now a powerful media company and advertising platform. Just look at those hashtags all over every TV show.
And, boy, does it know it. The last year has seen the company embark on a frenzy of advertiser-friendly activity, as well as some bold moves that, justified or not, appear to serve Twitter’s business interests at the expense of third-party developers.
And it's about time. Three CEOs over Twitter's short life have taken a toll on the company. A lot of internal work had to be completed before it was a a company with a strategy that advertisers could take seriously.
But do you know who hasn’t seen much love from Twitter in the past year? The humble user.
Sure, we’ve seen a profile page redesign, the introduction of the Discover tab, a bunch of new languages, a share-by-email feature, slightly improved search, and CEO Dick Costolo has promised that, by the end of the year, we’ll be able to download our Tweet archives.
I know running a business and a technology like Twitter is hard work, and I don’t want to diminish the scale of these achievements, but sometimes it becomes incumbent upon us to say: whoop-dee-doo.
Now compare that to what Twitter has done for advertisers.
In the last 12 months, Twitter has launched: a certified products program; self-serve promoted Tweets; interest targeting; expanded Tweets for content partners; a way to take down copyright-violating Tweets; a spammy email digest that no one asked for; targeted promoted Tweets; surveys; promoted Tweets for mobile; “cards” for advertisers; and event-page ads. Twitter now boasts that there are more than 2,000 ways you can interact and engage with Tweets. But do users even want to be engaged in 2,000 different ways?
Looking at what Twitter has done for advertisers this year, what it has done for its loyal users looks about as exciting as a kiss from a wet bus ticket.
Meanwhile, as a product, Twitter continues to have glaring deficiencies. After venting (on Twitter!) about the inexplicability of the barely usable direct-messaging mechanism earlier today, I put a question out to my followers: “What do you think could be improved about Twitter?”
For a company with 1,300 employees, some of the best engineering talent in the world, a valuation of more than $8.5 billion, and, until recently, wabi-sabi OCD design magus Jack Dorsey as product chief, you’d think it would be difficult to point out product flaws.
Surprise! It’s not. I got a bunch of suggestions.
Take those direct messages, for starters.
Using Twitter’s website, this is how you send a direct message:
- Go to the profile of the person to whom you want to send a message
- Click on the drop-down list indicated by the silhouette of a head
- Click “Send a Direct Message”
- If you haven’t exchanged messages with this person recently, what comes up is a dialog box that lists your previous messages with other people. You then have to click “New Message.” Why? Because. (I tried this with two different Twitter accounts on two different computers, in both Chrome and Safari.)
- For some unknown reason, you then have to enter the recipient’s Twitter handle.
- Finally you can write and send your message.
Using the iPhone app, meanwhile, it’s still four clicks until your message is eventually sent: visit profile; click on the head; click “send DM”; type and send. Same for iPad.
But that might not even be the most infuriating thing about direct messages on Twitter. If I start using Twitter on a new device, it can’t tell if I have already seen a message or not. In other words, it doesn’t know how to do cloud-syncing. So, I get the joy of seeing a “new” message waiting for me every time I jump from my Macbook to my iPad to my iPhone to my other (older) Macbook.
Now, this might be a really difficult problem to solve, but OneLouder, a small company based in Kansas City, has been able to do it for its Twitter client, Slices. So can I get a “WTF” around here? Let's be honest: If it had the will, Twitter could solve this problem without stretching a leg.
Okay, so direct messages sucks. What's next?
Well, search is almost useless, but that’s hardly news. Key complaints: For such a vast quantity of data, the only filter options we get are “Top,” “All,” or “People you follow.” You can go into Advanced Search, but then you only get a few more filtering options, including which words are included in the Tweets, various languages, which accounts are mentioned, and which places the Tweets come from. In the meantime, you can only go back a few days in time, it’s weak-trickle slow, and you have to use Advanced Search just to search your own timeline for Tweets you have written.
Again, tough problem to solve, right?
Except CloudMagic, a 30-person team based in Bangalore, lets you search Tweets from the accounts you follow at blistering speed (seriously, I can’t believe how fast CloudMagic is now, it’s ridiculous), for as many days back as you like, and you can search direct messages. Twitter offers none of that.
Meanwhile, PeerReach, an eight-person startup based in Amsterdam, showed me a prototype tool this morning that lets you filter searches by a wide range of filters at the click of a button, including by peer group (for me, a choice of journalists, politics, marketing, blogger, webtech, sports), country, influence rank, gender, account sizes, and popular tags.
Twitter ain’t got that, either.
Okay, well how about something dead simple? You know that “Quote Tweet” feature in Twitter’s iOS apps, which lets you add a comment to a Retweet? Yeah, that's still not available on Twitter’s main website. Its absence continues to be utterly inexplicable. (And yeah, I’ve bitched about that before.)
Following conversations on Twitter – which is, after all, a conversational tool – continues to suck. Every day, I see conversational detritus swimming in my timeline, disembodied and lost, totally out of context, making no sense at all. To follow an entire conversation and all of its participants, I have to click on each Tweet one-by-one to “View conversation.” And if someone who I don’t follow responds to a Tweet I’ve just seen, perhaps adding a zesty element to a provocative statement or even starting a fight, I have no way of knowing. To find out that has even happened, I’d have to visit the profile page of the original Tweeter and then track down his or her timeline, dutifully clicking on all the Tweets that look like @-replies, and view the cascading conversations in excruciating and redundant Tweet-by-Tweet detail.
Oh yeah, sure. Tough problem to solve. Except that in China, Sina Weibo has done it beautifully, and even Google+ makes it look perfunctory.
So, ladies and gentlemen, can I please get another “WTF”?
By now, if you’re a sensible person, you’re probably thinking I’m starting to sound like a whiny mope, forever demanding more from a free and wonderful service. Indeed, one dude once took great pleasure in calling me “breathtakingly entitled” for complaining about Twitter in a previous post.
The criticism may be fair enough, but, really, I am not asking for much from Twitter here. These are not special features or nice-to-haves we’re talking about. Direct messages, search, "Quote Retweet," and threaded conversations – these are the basics. I’m not even talking about Twitter’s noise problem, or that it doesn’t have a “Like” option for individual Tweets – although it would be nice if it sorted out both those issues. I’m just asking for some fundamental functionality in everyday features.
If Twitter is going to brag about handling half a billion Tweets a day and treat its advertisers to soapy massages and bedtime stories while cold-shouldering third-party developers, it could at least make sure that it lets users send direct messages in fewer than six steps, offer search that actually serves a purpose, let people add comments to Retweets, and make conversations make sense by stringing them together like normal humans would.
In 2012, Twitter has done a famous job of serving its business partners. Now would be a good time to pay attention to its more important clientele: us.