Twitter is dying. Again.
Or so I’ve been told, or seen, or heard — someone else said it, not me.
But I’ve been thinking about this lately as I watch more than half the tweets roll by my Twitter stream, muted and never to be seen. What I’ve come to realize is there is a discoverability and interest problem on Twitter — with Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram you can fairly easily find niches that conform to what you enjoy, what you are looking for, or what you are interested in.
With Twitter you can’t — well not as easily as you can on these other platforms. Search for something of interest on any of the others and you will likely find hundreds of things to interest you. Search on Twitter, and there’s a good chance you won’t even find a single thing.
Say you just want to follow breaking news on Twitter, well good luck. The post popular breaking news account, @breakingnews, posts “breaking news” which isn’t breaking news at all and sometimes is wrong. These accounts start to automate everything — because that’s cheaper than having a human do it. They craft quotas for posting each day, even when that doesn’t fit the premise of the account.
Why? What is so fundamentally different about Twitter that is causing these issues — or perhaps not causing, but exacerbating these issues?
I think it is the character limit. 140 characters, no more (for now). This isn’t because it limits conversations, but because it makes discoverability harder. You can’t always use a topic name in a tweet (which is easily discoverable by another person) and still say what you want to say, or even a series of hashtags becomes harder when you are up against a limit. You might abbreviate things like ‘Facebook’ to ‘FB’, or any other name which others might want to see or search on — it may never be found because it was abbreviated and each person is going to abbreviate things differently based on their world views. Even the same topic might, to find everything on it will be at least 5-7 different keywords, and a half dozen more different hashtags — rendering the system too chaotic to follow.
Unlike on Instagram you can’t add as many hashtags as you want. Or an overly long video description On YouTube. Or a post packed full of enough information someone might never need to leave Facebook. Or hell, write a book on Medium.
This is the crucial problem of the platform. For as great as that limit was when everyone knew what everyone was talking about (read: it was just a bunch of white guys talking about technology) Twitter was fantastic and on point. Now it’s diverse. With diversity comes the need to know what someone is talking about — because you likely won’t have the same frame of reference.
More still, if I see something happening near me and I want to see what Twitter is saying, what do I search? “Thing Y in X location”? Let’s say you can tag a tweet about what I am searching for in less than 30 characters, what you have left is not enough room for someone to really inform you of anything. You kill the substance, you kill the narrative, and reduce things to one liners which everyone takes out of context because there is simply no room for that context.
Search is useless on Twitter, which means there is no discoverability on the service. You discover people because someone tells you “they usually talk about this, follow them”. You rarely discover people because you found them on your own, by looking up topics of interest. Perhaps you discover them by a friend retweeting them, or perhaps you just assume you are following that person when you see them retweeted — either way, the system is fundamentally broken.
The opposite is true on Instagram, where you can quickly find people via tags or searching, or just looking at their images. Or Facebook. Or YouTube. Or Medium. On all those services most of the interesting accounts I find and follow are people I had no clue existed before, but I found through my own usage of the service — not someone telling me about them.
I discovered them. On Twitter the people I follow are people I “know” in some way or another, or they are someone we all know in some fashion.
So what ends up happening on Twitter is that you follow the same people all the time. Never changing. Nothing new. It’s all the same shit everyday. You don’t find anyone new, unless your clique inducts them into it, and that’s so rare that nothing ever seems to change.
Twitter’s lack of discoverability is exclusionary and exacerbates cliques — if that’s not fixed Twitter will have real trouble. I’m skeptical that raising the character limit will fix anything, as it seems it will break more core things about the service than it will fix — but something has to be done if they want to grow as a service.1 It might just be too little, too late.
Hell, if they don’t want to shrink they need to do something. ↩