Twitter at 10 years

It was 2008 in Chicago, the C4 conference was wrapping up and I shared a cab to the airport with Alex Payne, who built the first Twitter API. I was so excited about the potential for the platform that I probably had a dozen ideas for Twitter apps. Alex and I sat at a cafe at the airport, waiting for our respective flights, and talked about the future.

Years passed. I did build and ship a few Twitter apps, including the popular Tweet Marker sync API. But I also grew disillusioned. I took a break from using Twitter.

Alex had left the company and Twitter was much different from a business and leadership perspective by the time the rest of the world started paying attention. Thousands of employees worked at Twitter. How many of them had experienced the early days of following friends’ tweets via SMS, when the service seemed genuinely new and important? The future had arrived but it was full of hashtags.

This year — with rumors of Twitter being acquired, with fake news and the election, with online harassment — many people have written about the future of Twitter. I’ve been paying attention again, experimenting with cross-posting. I missed the 10th anniversary of when I joined Twitter in July 2006, but not the date of my first tweet a few months later.

10 years is a good milestone to reflect on. I want to highlight a few posts I’ve read recently, and then wrap things up at the end.

What I like about this article by Faruk AteĹź is that he gives a sense of the major changes Twitter has gone through, most of which were difficult to fully understand at the time. On the change with @-replies:

The second thing is that when they started hiding @-replies to people you don’t follow, they stripped the user experience of a vital ingredient for civility: peer transparency. The tone of discourse changed much for the worse over time, following that new behavior of the timeline. Before the rollout, all your friends would see if you behaved like a jerk to someone; after the rollout that was no longer the case. It removed the natural consequences of bad behavior, thereby encouraging people to reap the benefits of such bad behavior much more frequently.

This is a theme across many posts, that we didn’t realize what all these changes were adding up to. I have some related thoughts about Instagram and another post on why today’s social networks are broken.

Next, Sarah Frier writes for Bloomberg about how Twitter leadership is losing faith in Jack Dorsey. That despite new features such as live video, Twitter failed to ship other development efforts and fell behind competitors:

Advertisers see potential in the company’s live video strategy, but they’re also being wooed by photo- and video-sharing app Snapchat, and Facebook’s Instagram, which has recently become more advertiser-friendly. At the time of Twitter’s 2013 initial public offering, those services weren’t close competitors. Now they both have larger daily audiences than Twitter.

As long as Jack Dorsey has 2 jobs, it will be easy to blame him for being unfocused. I don’t know if that’s fair. But when streaming live football gets so much attention, there do appear to be competing visions at Twitter.

Twitter is too expensive to acquire. It’s also too flawed for a company like Disney to take a risk on. So instead there was another round of layoffs. From Kurt Wagner at Recode:

Last year, Twitter also cut 300 jobs shortly after Jack Dorsey took on the CEO role full-time. (Or part-time, given that he’s also running Square.) The current feeling among those close to the company is that Twitter is simply too bloated, and pays too much in stock-based compensation for a company that’s still not profitable.

There are no guarantees for an unprofitable company. The only certain thing is that something will change.

Back to Alex Payne. He wrote a post 6 years ago about his time at Twitter, and his unsuccessful attempt to convince coworkers to decentralize Twitter. It holds up very well:

Decentralization isn’t just a better architecture, it’s an architecture that resists censorship and the corrupting influences of capital and marketing. At the very least, decentralization would make tweeting as fundamental and irrevocable a part of the Internet as email.

It used to be impossible to imagine that Twitter could fail. And today, it’s still unlikely to vanish or even change much overnight. But the web will be better if we assume that Twitter is a lost cause. From the 10-year view, it’s clear that Twitter has already changed.

Acquisition rumors come and go, although they seem more real this time, and we’re reminded that few web sites last forever. It’s time to prepare for a web without Twitter.