Twitter Challenges

Taking ideas from words to working model won't be easy.  Challenges are a running feature that challenge the assumptions of select articles. 


"The Argument Against” is a dialogue where the dependable skeptic debates the believer, picking apart the argument so you don’t have to:

So you wrote this article.  


On Twitter.  


And you had a few ideas.  

A few.  

For how you could...what were your words?  Improve..?  

Not improve, but...clarify its direction.  

Clarify its direction, okay.  Well, what of RSS?  


That’s what stands out most in my mind is RSS.  RSS readers are prevalent across blogging, and tons of publications participate in the RSS ecosystem.  Yes, Feedburner is in decline for its own reasons, but you can’t deny RSS feeds.  

No, and I don’t deny it.  

But you don’t bring it up.  

I don’t bring it up because I can’t bring up everything.  I mention content aggregators, and surely RSS is a kind of aggregator.  

It is, but it’s one that publications are actively engaged in.  So I think you should have mentioned that fact and I think you should also consider why they’re actively engaged in it.  

Why?  Well, you tell me: why, in your opinion, are publications engaged in it?  

Well, I think for several reasons.  First, RSS readers are a great way get on peoples’ homescreen.  You know, the Internet, like you said, it’s a forest of a million different trees.  A billion.  And Just because you find a site doesn’t mean you’ll return.  RSS is a way to plug into that site, to put it on your homescreen.  

Bookmarking, though, does the same thing.  

It does, but it doesn’t do it as well, because bookmarks aren’t actively updating, the way RSS is.  Also, another thing you missed about RSS was the fact that content creators—bloggers, mostly—actually make revenue through RSS sponsorships.  

Yeah, and I’m sure Forbes makes some revenue from working directly with Flipboard; it’s the same thing.  

But it’s not the same thing, because RSS is an open standard, right?  Google runs Feedburner but Google doesn’t profit when you sell sponsored RSS feeds.  So the argument against RSS isn’t the same.  

You’re right, but you forget one important point.  

And what’s that?  

RSS feeds aren’t used by most people using the Internet.  Facebook is.  Apps are.  Yes, a good demographic of technology users like RSS feeds and rely on them in a way that other people rely on Google as a search-engine.  But if you’re a content creator and you’re betting your company on the success of RSS sponsorships I think you’re going to be disappointed.  That’s why I didn’t bring them up.  You need to make money.  You make money by having as direct a relationship as you can with your audience.  That means getting them to visit your site, instead of consuming your content elsewhere.  

You really believe that?  

I do.  Because it’s happened before.  It actually reminds me of an anecdote Steve Jobs gave about the music industry.  He was talking about the iPod days, about iTunes and how it came about.  We think of iTunes as monolithic now, inevitable, even—but that’s not true.  The record labels could have capitalized on digital music directly; they could have sold their music, not through Apple’s iTunes store, but their own online stores.  But the problem was, when you got down to it you realized: the record labels have no idea who their customer is.  They just have no idea, no relationship whatsoever with the consumer.  They assume that their customer is Wal-Mart and Best Buy and FYE—stores that sell CDs.  And this fatal assumption just blinded them to the fact that this tectonic shift was happening in the market; it blinded them to digital music.  Because Wal-Mart, Best Buy and FYE didn’t have any interest in digital music, the record labels had no interest in it.  That’s what made the way for iTunes.  Because the content creators—the record labels—had no direct relationship with their audience.  And now newspapers seem happy to do the same thing, to leave the trouble of reaching the audience to the Wal-Marts of the digital age: Facebook, Flipboard, and the Huffington Posts of the world.  

Okay, but there’s another point I think you miss, which is kind of strange: in the opening paragraph you talk about Twitter’s immediacy.  


You say—specifically you say it’s not a bound book.  


But then, a few sections down, not only do you compare your great idea to a book, you actually photograph a book.  And say this is where Twitter should go.  What in the world are you talking about?  

I’m talking about—

If Twitter’s unique because of its immediacy, why is your great innovation something that has absolutely nothing to do with immediacy at all?  


I guess the question I’m asking is: why didn’t you come up with an innovation that built on Twitter’s unique strength of immediacy?  This browser idea is a fine idea for its own thing, and maybe it does offer a solution to the content creator problem, but that’s not what Twitter’s all about.  

Ah, but I think it is—it is what Twitter’s about.  It’s one part of what Twitter’s about, which is content creation.  A platform for content creation.  And if you’re going to be a platform for content creation, you need to offer people some new tools for creating great content.  This is just one suggestion for doing that. 

But it kills immediacy.  

It doesn’t kill—

It ignores immediacy.  

The feature, yes, maybe it does ignore it.  But it’s not the only feature.  It’s just one thing that Twitter could do to serve the content creators—and of course content creators could still be pushing out their thoughts on immediate topics.  I don’t deny that.  

You’re not explicit about it.  

Well, I’m explicit about it now.  But it’s a good point you make: That it’s easier for Twitter to be immediate if it’s a social network, rather than just a content-creation platform.  Because social networks get more people writing and reacting to world events; whereas a content creation platform has some people writing, and most people reading.  

I don’t know about that.  

It’s true.  Look at the Presidential Debates.  After each one the news media talked about the topics trending on Twitter, and the number of Tweets that reacted to this moment or that moment—this kind of real-time tracking of peoples’ emotions.  

An instant poll.  

A kind of instant poll.  But that instant poll is made possible because so many people are active on the social network.  If Twitter continues to jeopardize that social network, and move closer and closer to a content creation platform, it might lose some of that activity and threaten the very immediacy that makes it so unique.  

All right, but let’s dig into this assumption, here.  Which I think is the central assumption of your article—that there’s this divide between being a social media network, or a content-creation platform.  It’s one or the other, you seem to say, and I’m not so sure of that.  


No, and I’ll give you some examples: Facebook is a social network.  It’s the social network, there’s no doubt about that; but it’s also a place for companies and non-profits and community organizations and movies and TV shows to put together pages and push out content to their followers.  In fact, Facebook is so serious about this capability that it actually charges these content creators to push out posts to more than a few followers at once.  

Yes, but Facebook—

That’s one example.  Here’s another: Tumblr.  Tumblr is a blogging service.  Content creation.  But it has some very clever social-networking components built in, too.  If you have a page, other people on Tumblr can follow you, and post comments and repost articles.  This makes it a friendly place, and it acts, actually, kind of like a solution to your RSS blues.  It acts as its own kind of internal RSS system.  So you see, just like Facebook, here in Tumblr you have an example of a service that’s predominantly one thing, but it offers the other.  So why, tell me—why, why, why does Twitter have to choose between being a social network or being a content creation platform; one, or the other?  

Because at least in Twitter’s case, these two sides seem to be in conflict.  

Explain that.  

Listen, it’s a lot easier to get people to consume content than it is to get them to comment on it.  To actually participate.  I mean you see this at the bottom of almost every YouTube video in the world.  The video will have 20 million views and only about 1,000 comments.  That’s one comment for every 20,000 views. The fact is: more people will view a debate than participate in it.  And so you have Twitter, which is an open platform—unlike Facebook—you have Twitter recognizing that people are viewing content without participating in the ecosystem.  And these people, these viewers, don’t give a damn about Twitter clients—they just want to hear what Justin Bieber said about his new music video.  This has got to be tempting to someone sitting in a corporate office looking at the hard numbers and seeing—on one side—a social network that’s complaining about being monetized and running away to third-party clients, and on the other side seeing this wildly popular content hosting platform.  

And you think they’re leaning towards content, then?  

The numbers speak for themselves.  It’s easier—and proven—that you can make money by selling ads for content.  People have been doing it for decades.  But Facebook is having a hell of a time trying to make money with a social network.  Because communication is fundamentally different, in the consumer’s mind, from content consumption.  When you read your Facebook timeline it’s like listening to your voicemail.  When you read a news article or blog, it’s like reading a magazine.  Advertisements don’t interrupt you when you’re talking on the phone.  But you don’t mind when they interrupt your television program.  

So you don’t think ads will work on a social network?  

Oh, some of them will work, sure.  But no matter how targeted they are, I really don’t think they’ll be effective on a—primarily a communications service.  Which is what Facebook started out as....

An argument could be made it’s trying to become more than that now.  

What, Facebook?  


Oh, of course—yes!  Facebook is becoming this giant monolith; it’s trying to suck up the whole web, in a way, so you never have to leave Facebook.  It’s—and I mention this—it’s trying to get into the content platform business.  It’s becoming an aggregator as well as a content platform.  

So in your mind, though, the difference in why it’s working for Facebook—why Facebook can walk this line and Twitter can’t—is...?  

The difference is primarily the fact that when it comes to being a social network Twitter is more extreme in that it’s short.  So it feels more like direct communication.  And so people are less open to ads getting in the way of the communication function, right?  And because on the content side it’s been open from the start.  Anyone can read anyone else’s feed, which makes it a good content platform. 

But Facebook’s pages are open for anyone on the Internet to see.  So why the distinction?  

I guess because there’s no distinction on Twitter’s side of things.  Maybe if Twitter was clever about it they could work this way, and only put ads in very popular feeds.  But even if it did that, I think that at the core these two groups of people—the content creators and the social networkers—want different things.  They value different things.  I don’t think Twitter can keep them both happy for long.  And I don’t know that Facebook will be able to, either.  


Still have questions or thoughts?  Let me know what you think: