How to Fix Twitter

Those 'Sorry We're Down' Messages Are Getting Old; Why Not Look at the SMS Industry?

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Craig Daitch Craig Daitch also writes the blog Thought Industry.
Twitter has growing pains: The service has ballooned to approximately 1.8 million members over the last 365 days.

For those who are unfamiliar with Twitter, the premise of the offering is to tell the world what you're doing in 140 characters or less. If you stumble across a Twitter member's "tweets" (the widely accepted lexicon for messages sent through Twitter), you can subscribe to them in the same way you can add a friend on MySpace or Facebook. From that point forward you receive in your personal Twitter feed every message that person sends. Think of it as a hybrid of SMS and RSS that opens a window into the minds of its members. Twitter's genius, however, stems from three traits: simplicity, ambiguity and ubiquity.

Twitter emulates the SMS model, give or take 20 characters. There is no way to currently view images through Twitter's native interface and the same applies for video and audio. Of course, there are workarounds via third parties like Twitpic, which provide a linkable means to viewing pictures through Twitter. But text is the only acceptable way to communicate using Twitter. And you know what? It works.

Twitter's ambiguous nature has allowed its community to stretch the question "What are you doing" to multiple interpretation, extending its utility to everything from sharing links to interesting articles with friends (fondly known as link baiting) to answering customer service questions, as in the case with Dell, which has a significant presence on Twitter. Additionally, bloggers such as Seth Godin and Greg Verdino link Twitter to their websites; they provide via Twitter a small snippet of blogprose, which links to their full posts.

Twitter's ubiquitous design has allowed for agnostic adoption across multiple platforms. I can integrate Twitter into Facebook, where a few lines of code redirects my Twitter feeds to replace my standard "status updates." I can also send and receive Twitter updates from my mobile device or via instant messenger. I can even use newly created social media aggregator services starting to captivate the tech crowd, FriendFeed and Flock are two examples, to send and receive Twitter updates on 3rd party pages. Yes, Twitter can be everywhere and anywhere without much thought to how it's accessed.

Sounds like all is well in the Twittersphere, but Twitter may be undermined by its own success. The power-users on Twitter have massive followings -- most are bloggers, authors or entrepreneurs and sometimes they're all three. The most powerful users on Twitter, such as Robert Scoble, have more than 30,000 people following his Twitter musings. As Om Malik wrote recently on his popular tech blog, GigaOM, Twitter is having trouble scaling and, in turn, servers are crashing, tweets go unsent or unreceived and its users are getting angry very quickly.

The good folks at Twitter mean well, I'm sure of it. When things go awry, they provide benign happy interstitial pages where cartoonish images of smiling owls, birds or whales accompany a message explaining Twitter is down for a while.

Admittedly, I initially found the images cute. How could you be mad at Twitter when it's passing off the equivalent of a Beanie Baby .gif as corporate imagery? But it has happened so often that now those images conjure up historical images of Marie Antoinette: "Let them eat cake!"

How to fix it
So if scalability is the biggest issue, how do you solve it? The general consensus is Twitter can be fixed using one of two solutions: integrate advertising into the Twitter streams or make users pay for supporting followers over a certain threshold.

I think advertising will eventually make its way into Twitter streams, but its inclusion could turn off users quickly. Think about the offensive nature of receiving a branded SMS message on your cell phone or IM client. I just wonder about the perception of ads in Twitter when the general consensus seems to be "you're not wanted here."

Furthermore, I think forcing Twitter users to pay to add followers runs counter to Twitter's desire to accrue as many uniques as possible. Yes, Facebook limits the number of friends per person to 5,000, but Facebook isn't necessarily a real-time broadcast medium. And while Twitter wasn't designed for mass communication, its users have anointed it as such. So again, what's the solution?

In the mobile space, messaging models are based on a per-second variable. If you're sending messages in bulk you would pay incrementally to increase the number of messages being sent through a carrier's text messaging gateway.

This same solution could apply to Twitter. For those of us who use Twitter to inform those who subscribe to our feeds of something compelling that doesn't require urgency, all we'll ever need is a standard message per second account. But for those like Robert Scoble or Mahalo's Jason Calacanis, who are using Twitter as a marketing tool and rely on Twitter's "call and response" communications to engage their respective audiences en masse, it may behoove them to increase the number of messages per second to support their communities.

Twitter has proven that even despite scalability issues, its users have a fondness for the service. Much like the tipping point that launched Twitter from a niche site to a close-to-mainstream success, those very users could abandon the company if their loyalty is pushed too far.
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