gle.ovo.

A case against Twitter

OK, I've put up with enough BS about Twitter. It's been months that this thing is growing on me, usually I can vent this off, but this time I can't ; a tiny thread was the last straw for me.

Short version of this post : Twitter basically provides a crappy infrastructure for broadcasting short messages on the Web, leaving to everybody else, be it their users, people with too much time on their hands or even companies to invent their own usage patterns and implement features by themselves. Meanwhile, Twitter sit and watch the world revolve around them, occasionally trying to cope with the unbearable mess that their infrastructure seems to be. The worst thing is that for each usage pattern that someone else is kind enough to add to Twitter, there already exists a better alternative out of Twitter, sometimes years or decade older. Yet all this doesn't seem to slow down Twitter a bit from passively stealing wind from innovative companies.

There, I said it.

Now, for the long version.

1) Twitter’s innovative model is ultimately awkward for social networking

The core of Twitter is : "say whatever you want to the world, in less than 140 characters". In the standard configuration, every thing you publish can be seen by anybody. On top of that, you can follow people, that is to say that you can asymetrically "tune in" to what a Twitter user says and receive it on your Twitter home page, so that what they say is not lost amongst the blabber of everybody else.

I know that you can create protected profiles, I know you can send direct messages (DM), I know you can block people, all that stuff. Those are not core features, in the sense that they were added to address shortcomings of the initial offering, rather than to innovate along the lines of the core features. In a world without Twitter, you want to DM ? Try e-mail. You want protected profiles ? Try Facebook, Google Groups, Friendfeed groups, etc.

( As an aside, to an old, born-in-the-70s guy like me, Twitter sounds a lot like the CB radio of the web. It’s a medium, and like any medium it needs some content, some usage patterns to have some interest. In France at least, the killer app for CB Radio was an informal, real-time, dynamic community dedicated to reporting police speed traps. Now it has been re-invented with GPS and GPRS. )

Granted, this combination of short message, public broadcasting and asymetric subscription is an original creation from Twitter, coming just at the right time when the blog craze seemed to fade away (remember the blog craze ? back in 2004 ? one blog for each human being and all that stuff ?). If people can't be bothered creating true blogs, if people suffer from the empty text area syndrom (the modern version of the white page one), well, let's dedramatize this life streaming stuff and just let people tell what they just ate in a few words.

This was the “What are you doing ?” period of Twitter. It was a meme, it was fun, but once you’ve read your 10th cleaning the bathroom tweet, the excitement disappeared. The point is that Twitter was pretty fun in the sense that you could (and still can) reach random people on the Web and find out what they are doing… but except for a few outliers which ensure that Twitter gets some media coverage (like Twitter CEO’s pregnant wife who tweeted during labour), you soon discover that a random person on Twitter is, well, random, and you wish you could get a little bit more feedback from this…

…then you turn to Facebook because, well, that's the place where your friends/colleagues/futur-ex-boss-that-you-forgot-you-befriended are, where you can trade pictures, say bad jokes and naughty things and try to outsmart each other on crappy IQ tests. Or you turn to Myspace, Orkut, whatever : it's not the brand, it's the fact that a richer social network exists, complete with more or less useful apps that you can use INSIDE the network, that it allows for true conversation with more or less privacy depending on the context, that it's rich with images, songs, videos, that it's so much MORE interesting that the awkward, public, text-only chat you can have on Twitter. Hey, even if all you need is a good old fashioned text-only chat, there are far better alternatives to Twitter, beginning with the chat system that were introduced in Facebook or Myspace.

So at the end of the day, this whole “public broadcasting your thoughts” seems a bit awkward. Of course some people are perfectly happy to whistle in an hurricane and expose everything about their life, and I’m fine with them, but Psychology 101 says most people want to be heard, and answered (if you don’t agree with this, imagine closing the comments and removing your Google Analytics tag on your blog, for instance). Twitter has a informal social network, of course, but it is quite specific (asymetric following) and much less engaging than the competition out there. This is true to the point that you have to turn to third party applications like Friend or Follow (once again showing the total apathy of Twitter, letting other people do the job) to get some sense of what’s going on in your trust network. Not good.

One symptom of this problem is the fact that teens don’t tweet. If teens don’t see any social value into Twitter, it’s a pretty good indicator that something is wrong, and that with time things will look even worse for Twitter.

Next in line, the 140 character limit. You know what ? In your favorite social network, I'd bet that most of the time people already write messages that are 140 characters of less, except nobody poses about this, because this is how people communicate anyway. What was a kind of artificial constraint providing a creative twist, a urge for conciseness in a blogging context, becomes totally uninteresting in a conversational context, where people already integrate the 160 characters as a limitation of the SMS. The problem is that this limit is actually preventing people from easily sharing interesting things, more on that later.

So, to sum up, Twitter was initially built as an alternative to blogs, grew some kind of original social network features, but in the end I can’t help but think that the result is awkward and that there are far better mainstream offerings out there.

2) Twitter is also awkward for sharing stuff on the web

Another popular usage pattern built around Twitter is the "share stuff on the Web" pattern : share URLs, share pictures, share videos… Well, guess what, you just CANNOT do that in Twitter per se, not easily at least. You have to use URL shorteners, third party web application like Twitpic, etc.

OK, Twitter bought bit.ly last May so that pretty much solves the issue of sharing URLs. Except that it’s a wart on the system and it hides the destination URL so that you don’t know whether you are going to land on a NSFW page, all this because for the 140 chars limitation. And I still can’t easily share pictures of video, they stay out of the loop, on an external system. Compare with this variation on the theme of “I just ate”, powered my the micro-blogging platform tumblr.

The net result is that you are using a patchwork of interdependent patchy services with unknown viability to share things with people. You are subject to the infrastructure or financial problem of all those services (think about what happens with tr.im). Then if you want to get some feedback about what you shared, then you’re on your own trying to build a conversation (more on that later) and see if some people retweet what you shared.

Once again, there are perfectly valid alternatives out there if you want to share stuff : Digg, Google Reader + Google Notes, Friend Feed, del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, Yoono, and countless others. Each one of these services are dedicated to the task of reviewing what some people have discovered, give your advice about it ("I like it", "Favorite", rank it). Each one is perfectly aware that something else than 140 bursts of character exists, and handle images and video sharing in a handy way. Each one of them allow for some easy discussion of the subject at hand. In short, those services were properly engineered for sharing stuff on the Web. I'm sorry, but Twitter is not.

A fine example of the inadequancy of Twitter here is the retweet (RT) usage pattern, trying to emulate features like “I like” that you can find in other applications, except that it’s handled way better (I won’t bother you with the details of with RT fail, I’m sure you already experienced the awkward feeling of retweeting something that was already retweeted).

Once again, we see people trying to struggle around the limitation of Twitter by inventing usage patterns. This is very cool if we see all this from a social science experimental point of vue, I guess some people could get a PhD out of this, and we all feel like pioneers exploring the Wild West while doing that. The sad truth is that this Wild West is nothing but an artificial sandbox which per chance is under the scrutiny of mass media. Meanwhile, some real innovation and progress takes place somewhere else, out in the real world (FriendFeed, Google Wave, pubsubhubhub to name a few interesting spots).

By the way, the funny thing is that I actually tried to fix RTs by working on a collaborative ranking system for Twitter : Tweetraise. It was very fun to write, I learned a lot about Twitter and Google App Engine, but my end conclusion is : why bother ? Why would I spend some time trying to fix Twitter for free whereas some other very good services already exist ?

3) Twitter is awkward for conversations

Twitter doesn’t have any proper conversation system. It doesn’t thread tweets, even though there is a trace of threading attributes hidden in the Twitter API (see the in_reply_to_status_id element there). You end up either DMing or publicly replying to tweets with an @name mention and let the readers find out what you are replying to. You get absolutely no help from Twitter here, initially there weren’t even a reply button in the web interface (this feature was actually boasted by third party applications !).

So once again, people try to work around this with mentions, hashtags, and in the latest installment of The Twitter Circus, a tiny thread. Once again, it kinda works and people are delighted to see “innovation” in Twitter-land for features that have existed for decades in Usenet or IRC.

You know, it's pretty sad to watch people struggle to single-handedly re-invent Google/Yahoo Groups, FriendFeed, Usenet or IRC within the limitations of Twitter. What's the point ? OK, it's some good hacking fun (like I've wrote, I went through this and it was nice), but shouldn't we try to actually build some open source based innovative infrastructure instead of trying to incrementally improve a system for the benefit of a private corporation ?

4) Twitter’s infrastructure is crappy by design

OK. I know “public broadcast with asymetrical following” is not that simple to handle. I know that some usage pattern leading to people with millions of followers is not really the easiest problem to address. I know that the rate of growth of Twitter is putting a big stress on their infrastructure. Plus, it’s not easy to withstand a sustained growth, to survive DDOSes, and big pieces of news like the iranian elections or MJ’s death. Most of all, I don’t really know what kind of money Twitter can mobilise to solve these issues, but it surely isn’t in the same league as Google.

But come on… I don’t need to remind you of the loooong track record of outages and performance issues of Twitter. You can follow nearly everything in their status blog, and it’s not pretty.

The problem is not that Twitter has infrastructure issues which could prevent people from telling the world whether they like spinach or not. It is that there is a whole lot of people who invest time and money in this, trying to provide innovative services on top of what is becoming a carrier business. They are ultimately relying on the Twitter infrastructure for their projects / business to work properly. Twitter is at the core of an ecosystem which depends on their capacity to run the basic infrastructure seamlessly, a single point of failure in a very centralized system. What if Twitter doesn't have the resources to fix their issues, reach and maintain a high quality of service ? Will everybody suffer from this after having invested so much time and money in Twitter, all the while bringing they incremental improvement and valuation ?

Have a look at FriendFeed. Those guys managed to deliver an almost flawless experience from day one. They have the experience, knowledge and brightness required to build this kind of service. FriendFeed proves that you don't need to have huge, Google-like teams and resources to build an innovative, scalable, real-time service. Yet Twitter could not deliver. Guess which service out-numbers the other 50 fold ? Twitter wins. Go figure. On the other hand, guess who was bought by Facebook ?

Of course, there are two solutions to this infrastructure problem : either Twitter vastly improve their infrastructure and monetization scheme, and tell the world how they feel they might be able to technically and financially reach the 100 million, 200 million, 500 million users bar, or they just let go of the infrastructure problem and turn Twitter into a decentralized protocol for sharing short bursts of text.

( To be frank, there is in fact a third scenario, which is that everybody keep on blindly trusting Twitter to fix their problem and blissfully continue bringing value and users to the platform for the ultimate benefit of Twitter. )

What would become Twitter in a decentralized protocol scenario ? Well, it would be a bit like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail or Gmail in the e-mail business. A brand, an access portal competing with other on usability and features in the context of a common protocol.

But of course, this supposes that the world really need something like a decentralized Twitter, at a time where far richer and open initiatives like Google Wave or pubsubhubhub are building momentum…

Conclusion

Well, if you managed to reach that part (or skipped directly to it), congratulations and thank you :)

My conclusion is pretty much the same as the short version of the post (hopefully). I’m worried that Twitter is actually hurting innovation by distracting funds and good willed people, while actually failing to provide a useful user experience or giving any guarantee as whether their infrastructure is reliable or not. Let’s hope that the hype around Twitter dissipates far enough to prevent further damage. The only other way out for Twitter is to actually reinvent themselves and starts truly innovating instead of relying on the goodwill of API users. This is a tough endeavour given the potential horsepower behind big actors like Google Wave and Facebook/Friendfeed.



Comments are closed.