Musings on Twitter, networks, and mission driven businesses

By October 19, 2015Google, Twitter

I read a very interesting and typically well written post from Umair Haque over the weekend titled Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It). Everyone seems to be writing about Twitter at the moment, but this piece doesn’t mention Jack Dorsey or Twitter’s product challenges per se.

Umair goes deeper.

As he sees it Twitter’s challenge is that low level abuse and snarkiness is undermining the experience for most users and they are walking away.

He put it like this:

…let me be clear what I mean by abuse. I don’t just mean the obvious: violent threats. I also mean the endless bickering, the predictable snark, the general atmosphere of little violences that permeate the social web…and the fact that the average person can’t do anything about it.

We once glorified Twitter as a great global town square, a shining agora where everyone could come together to converse. But I’ve never been to a town square where people can shove, push, taunt, bully, shout, harass, threaten, stalk, creep, and mob you…for eavesdropping on a conversation that they weren’t a part of…to alleviate their own existential rage…at their shattered dreams…and you can’t even call a cop. … Twitter could have been a town square. But now it’s more like a drunken, heaving mosh pit.

These are strong words, and I think they over-state the extent of unpleasantness that exists on Twitter, but there’s a basic truth in the observation.

But these problems are not unique to Twitter.

In fact they are faced by every growing community.

Let’s take a step back and think about what makes communities work. I wrote this back in 2007:

People hang out in communities (online and offline) because they are pleasant places to be. You choose the communities you like in large part because the other people there are polite and behave in the way that you like to behave. There are unwritten rules which determine what is acceptable and what isn’t and the community is policed by its members. Think rural village or social network – it is the same for both.

When these rules work well the community thrives, and if they stop working the community can fall apart.

The challenge for Twitter and others is that rules which work well when the company is one size stop working as it grows. New rules are needed, usually to cope with rising challenges of signal vs noise, spam, and abuse.

Facebook is the best example of a company that has done a great job of evolving the rules to keep the company relevant. They constantly tinker with the algorithm which determines what shows up in the Newsfeed and offer users new features to filter stuff out and have managed to keep the balance right. Often they drive their users mad because they can’t understand the why’s and wherefore’s of what shows up, but they understand they need to disappoint some people in the short term to keep the company relevant in the long term.

Maybe Twitter’s problem is that they haven’t evolved their rules. They have done bits and pieces with lists, trends, recommended Tweets, and now Twitter Moments but for most people the experience is still looking at everything from all the people they follow in their main feed.

Towards the end of his post Umair notes that the history of revolutions is not great:

We dreamed that we created a revolution. But we did not heed the great lesson of revolution. Today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s little tyrant. The French Revolution started as a glorious paean to people power. And it climaxed in a tidal wave of terror and bloodshed. So, too, goes every revolution too arrogant to history — including the digital revolution. Cross the line, and the inquisitors will come your way. Better then, to stay silent, than to dare the fury of the revolution itself.

Umair’s advice to Twitter, and indeed to the whole of web media, is to focus on the quality of social interaction. If the quality of social interaction is high, people will enjoy Twitter and come back to the network.

I think he’s right, but I think Twitter confused their end goal with the best way to get there.

This is Twitter’s mission statement:

Our mission: To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.

Independent of context this doesn’t say anything. There’s no ‘so what’. However, back in 2006 when the company was founded most people still didn’t have a voice and the idea of lowering the barriers to publish would bring more people into the conversation was hugely exciting.

But, and this is the key point, it was exciting because we all thought that with more voices the quality of the conversation would improve, democracy would improve and the world would be a better place.

I think that happened for a bit, but to Umair’s point the quality of the conversation has declined recently. If Twitter’s mission statement had been to ‘improve the quality of online conversation’ then they would have caught this early. However, because they see their role as making it easy for people to speak introducing rules to manage the quality of the conversation is somewhat awkward for them.

Extending this point to all businesses, companies with a durable mission at least stand a chance of enduring, but to be enduring the mission should talk to an enduring customer benefit. Google’s mission to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” is one that should stand the test of time – whether they can execute on it as the world’s information moves into silos they can’t access is a different question.

Companies without an enduring mission are in danger of being co-opted by shareholders or blindsided by technology change to the detriment of customers, and that only ends one way. Moreover, these days customers are so alive to this risk that they seek out businesses with durable and authentic missions from the get go.