Twitter is growing at a rate it can barely sustain. But it's also losing more active users than it would like to admit. NY Mag tagged along with the social media monolith's big wigs to find out what's next.
Joe Hagan interviewed CEO Dick Costolo and co-founder and VP Jack Dorsey, along with a slew of others as he pushed his way into the inner workings of the social media platform. Interspliced betweet anecdotes of Twitter's mythology and it's biggest highlights are hints of how the site will evolve.
Twitter's plan for the future is two fold. They've split their user base into two primary categories. What they call the audience and the talent. The audience are those who mostly use Twitter like an RSS feed, reading and following more than tweeting. The talent are those who use Twitter as a platform to spread information or promote themselves. Writers, media outlets, actors, athletes, musicians, celebrities, etc. And Twitter is approaching these groups in two very different ways.
Going forward, Twitter will address the audience through the product itself. They want to make it easier for people to find the best and most relevant tweets from people they follow (and maybe even don't follow) without losing the core essence and simplicity of Twitter. And in addition to the site itself better functioning as a curatorial entity, they want to better spotlight those people who round up the best links and tweets floating around the platform.
"At a simplistic level, it sounds easy," says Costolo, "because we could just go find, you know, the top trending topics and the tweet that was retweeted the most in the last two hours and show people that. But you want to be able to surface discovery at the global scale-‘Hey, there's fomenting revolution in Tunisia'-but also surface discovery at the hyperlocal level: ‘I can tell by the fact that you're on your iPhone, and you've exposed your lat-long [your location, as latitude and longitude] to me that you're at the Giants game, and here are a bunch of other tweets and pictures people are tweeting from the game right now.' "
The danger of overstructuring the information, he says, is that the user stops experiencing Twitter the way people originally came to experience Twitter, as the place for free-form, serendipitous chatter.
"You lose the roar of the crowd," says Costolo. "You look at the search results and ‘Oh, there was a goal,' but you lose the athletes you follow and Mario Batali and Dennis Crowley from FourSquare. It's a design and engineering challenge.
As for the talent, Hagan says that Twitter is working behind the scenes to make sure that some of the most influential people in the country are using their product. They spent a year courting Obama in the lead up to his "Twitter Town Hall" event. They give some of the biggest names in media, such as the NY Times' David Carr, prime real estate on their site, which funnels in new followers and keeps the tweets flowing. The also established outposts in L.A. Washington D.C. to go out and attract the biggest names in entertainment and politics to the site. According to researchers quoted in the piece, an estimated 20,000 users are responsible for over 50% of all tweets.
And Twitter is learning that it has to tend the talent as carefully as any entertainment company. In the planning rooms of Twitter, the most prolific and widely followed tweeters are called "influencers," or "power users," and they are at the core of its business. If it loses them, it becomes, essentially, MySpace-a digital graveyard where a party used to be.
The reason Twitter wants James Franco tweeting is to sell his audience to advertisers. And if it can figure out how to insert a Starbucks tweet into the Francosphere, and prompt people to buy coffee without stifling their intimacy with Franco, Twitter wins. This advertising model is still in the dream stage. But what a dream it is.
"A new kind of advertising that can go everywhere, frictionlessly, immediately," says Costolo. "It's not just a browser ad, it's not just a desktop ad, it goes to smart phones, it goes to feature phones, it can go to SMS [text messages], it can go to TV."
Ads! The golden light at the end of the tunnel for Twitter. While not in a panicked rush to turn itself into a money generating machine, the top bosses at twitter are ever-conscious about possible ways the site can make money and they're quietly tinkering with ideas until they find something that works for everyone.
One way these ads manifest themselves is in the form of the promoted Tweets and hashtags. Celebrities might use this to plug their latest project.
This is the staging ground for making Twitter into a multibillion-dollar company. An advertiser like Starbucks or VW can buy access to different parts of the Twitter experience, placing its messages atop the list of the most-tweeted hashtags, or inside the Twitter feeds of people who already follow the brand, have a friend who does, or simply tweet about a related subject. Soon there will be a self-serve option, allowing smaller advertisers to sign up and instantly get into the mix.
Whether or not Twitter can turn its potential into something fully realized remains to be seen. But the entire NY Mag piece, full of Obama tales and quotes from the likes of Jersey Shore's Snooki, is definitely worth a read. [NY Mag]