Not the Twitter We Want, but it's the Twitter we Deserve

Everyone, look under your seats, you all have favorites! I have talked about my opinion on favoriting things in the past, but to quickly summarize: I favorite for a variety of reasons, but I favorite things often. Their use can impart something to the conversation you’re having in a way text would not, and they can also be simple bookmarks.

Since a favorite alone can be used as a form of communication, it is important to know when one has received a favorite. Which means notifications need to be enabled for them. However, if you use Tweetbot, those notifications are not sticky, they go away as soon as they pop up in the app. If you want to know what happened, you need to open the official Twitter app, or the Twitter website, and look at the “Notifications” section. This is why I juggle two apps, back and forth. I hate the regular Twitter app’s timeline, but I need the context of what was favorited to steer a conversation, or to know that a conversation ended amicably. People often favorite the last tweet in a conversation as a form of punctuation, that they enjoyed the conversation, but it’s over for right now.

None of this mattered at all until this week when Twitter changed how they displayed the timeline in the official apps. Now, my promiscuous picks, pokes, and polite nods are going to appear, at random, in the timelines of random people that follow me on Twitter. These out-of-context artifacts will just hang there, taking up about 1/4 of someone’s visible timeline on a mobile device and leave them scratching their heads. Attempt to follow the conversation from one of those tweets and you’ll be totally lost. Some sarcastic interchange might appear to be closely-held beliefs without proper context. Will people just see self-contained gems of 140 character insight? Only tweets with links to news, or products?

Also troubling, are two other injected types: ‘[One of your followers] follows’ and ‘From Twitter’. The ‘follows’ one might be familiar to anyone that’s accidentally looked at Twitter’s ‘Discover’ feed, only now they’ve seen fit to migrate it to the main feed. You get a popular, recent tweet from that ‘follow’ presented to you. These have so far included things like Buzzfeed: “John Krasinski and Emily Blunt’s #IceBucketChallenge is why they are the best couple ever [buzzfeed pageview metric link]” and Cory Doctrow “Child arrested after writing story about shooting a dinosaur [boingboing]”. It offends me, not because I find Buzzfeed’s desire to share cynical, or BoingBoing’s news old, but because some algorithm has decided that these things suit me. That these are the things that I will click on, the content I will consume. It makes me want to shout, “YOU DON’T KNOW ME!” But, in a way, they do know some of me. They see my actions and try to infer meaning from them, which is not the same as understanding me — yet. I’m sure they will get better at it, which also disturbs me.

The same goes for ‘From Twitter’ only it’s using some mechanism that makes no sense to me. I’ve only ever seen one of these, and it was for someone I do not follow, and I don’t think anyone I follow, follows them. There is one connection, Buzzfeed, so maybe it’s topical? “Meet AdDetector — the browser plug-in that labels native advertising with a huge red [sic] banner [Wall Street Journal pageview metric link]” The algorithm is so cynical, and inept, that it selected a story about the offensive injection of reading material people do not want to inject in to my timeline.

The ‘Discover’ tab is crap for this very reason. It is a company highlighting things that align with how they would like me to use their product. Twitter’s appeal, for me, has been in my ability to select who, and what, I see. It was clear before, you followed someone, you saw their tweets. You followed two people that talked to each other, you saw their conversations. You’d only see tweets from people you did not follow when they were retweeted.

Twitter Hates Completionists

Twitter wants to control what I see. When I’m out of tweets to read, it wants to pick one for me. When I’m scrolling through, it wants to put something that is closely aligned with its interests in the list. They want me to amplify the voices of the popular so they stay popular and engaged with the service — especially publications, and large blogs, that tweet frequently.

A real peril is that when I start from where I last read twitter, I will read everything, as it unfolded. I will see the first news post instead of a promoted one. I will see the first time something funny was said, instead of the one that has been selected for popular reinforcement. Most importantly, I will read everything, and stop using the service until later, because I know Tweetbot won’t lose my place.

Tweetbot isn’t going to exist forever, neither will any of the other clients. Their functionality is hamstrung, and their profitability is constrained. Where’s the update to Tweetbot for iPad? Why am I still using an iOS 6 app on the eve of iOS 8’s launch if for no other reason than it’s not in the developer’s interests to release it? Twitter would like it very much if Tweetbot went away.

The worst thing in the world, from Twitter’s perspective, is for me to read only what I want to read. To see only what I want to see. What I want does not make them any money. What I want is at their expense.

Twitter, as it existed for its first few years, was not profitable. It needs to be profitable. Services can’t run on adoration and appreciation, they do need money. Investors want a return on their investment greater than just breaking even.

Marco Arment, John Siracusa, and Casey Liss talk about this, and all things related to the Twitter experience, in Accidental Tech Podcast episode 79.

“Web 2.0” was a great lie. The power of social, connected data on dynamic webpages — for free. We participate in the lie every day. Look at Tumblr, acquired by Yahoo, and making its own moves to lock itself down. Their “Sponsored Posts” have animated gifs, so they’re still cool, right? Axe body spray is cool, right? They even insert suggested blog posts now. It doesn’t hurt that the suggestions are from popular blogs that are selling products. I’m sure that’s a coincidence!

Let’s Make Our Own Twitter! What Could Go Wrong?

Diaspora Still Works!

Diaspora, a federated network of nodes that presented people with a Facebook-like interface received funding from Kickstarter in June of 2011, but didn’t launch fast enough, it took years. Nodes are still up and running, but don’t pretend it achieved its goals of providing a social space, they just built a mostly empty city that will live forever. You can go use it right now, if you want, but almost no one is.

Generic Dot Cereal

App Dot Net is the most infamous flop because its slow-motion death is ongoing. App Dot Net was the name for a social application platform, but what everyone associated the name with was “Alpha” the Twitter clone that the App Dot Net employees made to showcase their social application platform. This was the biggest danger. Mentally, all App Dot Net was, was a Twitter clone. The technical underpinnings did not matter to the vast majority of users. The other “cloned” services like Backer weren’t even a blip on most people’s radar. People could build whatever they wanted to build, but it didn’t seem to matter because it was all about the Twitter clone component.

How often to clones of things outpace the original? Usually, only when the clone is cheaper than the original, and even then that’s not guaranteed. You might buy generic, bulk toilet paper, or generic breakfast cereal, but there will be things you choose not to compromise on. App Dot Net was never going to be cheaper than Twitter. That means you need your clone to do something novel. App Dot Net had a slightly longer word length. I would not call that a distinguishing feature for your Twitter clone.

App Dot Net was also going to be different from Twitter, or Facebook, because users would pay to use the service. Here, look at their funding page, that they no longer have online. It’s hard enough to convince people to use a service that, on the surface, is ‘just’ a Twitter clone, but now you’re asking people to pay money for it. This limited the number of people using the service, which limited the conversations, and made for a really uninteresting social experience. All the while, people were still posting on Twitter, because that’s where conversations could really happen. The developer-friendliness of it was immaterial to people posting about their food, or what was on TV.

App Dot Net eventually made a free tier, and turned the platform in to a “freemium” service, but by that point, all the new users could see was a Twitter clone full of straight, white, male programmers and technology enthusiasts. It was about as fun as a party organized exclusively by engineers. I joined around this time, telling myself I would pay for the service if I liked it. I was certain I would reach the limit for the number of people I would follow because it was so low compared to my Twitter account. Turns out, that there wasn’t a reason to follow most people because they were cross posting with Twitter, and many accounts from people active at its founding were unused, or only occasionally updated. Engagement is a word I love to make fun of, but seriously, there was no engagement.

The Tent is in the Jargon Cupcake

Tent/Cupcake is a total mess. It is a service like App Dot Net (the platform, not the “Twitter Clone” part). Tent is more like Diaspora in that it’s decentralized. Anyone can create a Tent server.

Tent is decentralized like email and the web. That means that users interact with each other in the same way whether they’re on the same service provider or across the world. That means no one company can control the ecosystem. If a service provider starts behaving badly, users can move to another provider or set up their own servers, taking their data and relationships with them. Unlike email, address books are updated automatically so migration is seamless.

That sounds really neat for a second until you realize that the positive part of their metaphor is email. Almost everyone uses free, ad-supported email, and even services that mine email for ways to sell ads to you. You can migrate wherever you want, but will you? Won’t you just stick to the free ones that will probably suck in some way? Being really excited about Tent, is like being really excited about IMAP. IMAP is not your email, it’s what allows your email to happen. is run by the guys that make the Tent protocol, and they provide a “freemium” experience — like what App Dot Net added. What’s the freemium experience like? I don’t know! What are the apps like? Couldn’t tell you! It’s a total mess. This website is not how you get someone to try your service, it’s how you make someone close their browser tab and go back to Twitter.

Great apps

We have apps for everything from microblogging to file sharing. All our apps are free to all users. And of course you can use any Tent app in the world with your Cupcake account without limitation.

Where are the apps? I don’t sign up for things just because you’ve prompted me with the field to sign up, show me what’s at the end of this process. No matter how much I don’t like Twitter, it’s still socially viable and your service is only jargon to me.

When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth

In the beginning, there was darkness, then we had an explosion of social, web-centric applications. Services would rise and fall. People would have accounts on multiple services. Services having APIs to make clients was a cool idea. This bubbling primordial ooze produced lots of things that have died off. Even services that promised to aggregate all your other social feeds, like Friendfeed (bought by Facebook), and SocialThing (bought, and destroyed by AOL. Fortunately, we got the last laugh because the SocialThing guys ruined AIM.) Typically one led to the next though. Friendster was followed by Myspace, which was followed by Facebook. Then Facebook stayed. The reason this rise-and-fall was broken was because Facebook refused to be acquired, and as such, it had to have a business plan. They turned their creepy, awful, social pressure in to a tool to lure in more investors and IPO. They had money to do their own acquisitions. This caused an imbalance, because before, things would just shutter, or get acquired and shutter. Google, Yahoo, and AOL were, and continue to be, really bad at social platforms. They don’t even know what to do with their instant messaging platforms most of the time.

Twitter rose up around the same time as Facebook, but much smaller, and it’s been its success on handheld devices that’s enabled it to run in parallel with Facebook, which continues to fumble mobile. Facebook’s biggest success in mobile is from an acquisition of a company that lets you take photos, something they were incapable of doing internally.

Twitter is Facebookifying themselves because they want the financial success of Facebook. The controlled timeline, even superficial things like banners and avatars. And Facebook is Twitterifying themselves with the digestible tweets. And they’re Snapchatifying themselves with their messaging stuff. They’re Flipboardifying themselves with Paper. Tumblr is changing from a blogging service in to a feed-focused service, like Twitter and Facebook. Where else can you put the ads?

Where once there were tons of silly, ridiculous, obnoxious, fun social services, now there are only a few and they’re interested in maintaining themselves by eating the small services, and morphing parts of themselves in to one another.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s what happened with all the original web companies. AOL, Google, and Yahoo all needed webmail, they all needed news services, they all needed blogging platforms, photo services — Hell, Yahoo bought Tumblr.

Seeing the craptacular nature of things doesn’t matter. We get riled up every six months on the internet about how social networking giants work. So what? Our collective outrage as resulted in a few abject failures we can pat ourselves on the back for. The next big thing probably isn’t going to come from any of these nerdy, nice people making things, it’s probably just going to be another Twitter or Facebook that seems more attractive to us because Twitter and Facebook will continue to be less attractive to us.

As the social survivors of “Web 2.0” gorge themselves on gifted youth they start to move further away from being things people enjoy. They become business-degree-managed sameness.

If this evolution in to generic commodities continues, then when will we see the next fish crawl out of the mud? What will that fish be? I hope it’s an awesome fish that I won’t hate for a few years.

2014-08-22 11:35:51

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