This is how Twitter dies

twitter-dies

I used to use Facebook a lot, but over time I just got sick of it. Now I log on every once in a while from my phone or if I’m bored at my computer just to see what’s going on with a few people. If Facebook shut down tomorrow, I’d notice, but I wouldn’t care.

This isn’t the first social site that has followed this pattern. In ye olde days when forums were far more popular than they are now, I belonged to two for a few years where I made a bunch of “internet friends.” The older of the two was home to a large number of people and the second was inhabited by a small subset of these people who wanted a less strict place to share dumb jokes and such. Both sites eventually ground to a halt and were eventually shut down by their owners as people slowly lost interest and traffic dropped off significantly.

Facebook is taking a much slower path to irrelevance for me, but I can imagine that soon I won’t care what happens to it at all. At first it was a cool site to find your friends and share stuff. Then there were the annoying games, and now Facebook thinks they know what I want to see in my feed better than I do. Now Facebook constantly resets my News Feed to something called “Top Stories,” a list of items I may or may not care about that got a lot of attention from my friends according to some algorithm (such as that photo that got 1 “like” three weeks ago that somehow still gets placed above a friend announcing their engagement with 41 “likes”).

As Facebook insists more and more on telling me what content I want to see, I care less and less about being there. At the time that I was using any given social platform, I could never imagine how it would one day be replaced by something better. Now I’m on Twitter all the time. When I started using Twitter, I thought it was something cool to check every once in a while. Now it’s something I leave running all the time on my computer and in my iPhone’s dock. As I continued using the service more and more, I couldn’t imagine that one day it would be replaced by something different.

But lately I’ve started seeing Twitter follow the same pattern as those other sites, especially Facebook. It seems the company is actively attempting to make the service as unusable as possible. Consider this:

A while back, Twitter decided they were going to start limiting how many people could use any given third-party Twitter app. Now remember, third-party Twitter apps are responsible for the popularity of the platform to begin with. The creativity of the developers who designed these apps is why we have many of the Twitter features that exist today.

Now that they have effectively created a cutoff point for third-party app profit, many developers have decided it’s not worth their time to continue building for this platform. That’s why we’ve seen things like App.net start to pop up: people are not happy with how Twitter treats developers and places arbitrary limits on not only those making the software, but those who wish to use it.

But Twitter wasn’t content to stop there. Alienating and angering those developers wasn’t enough. For a while now Twitter has been sending optional emails to users informing them of the wondrous conversations they have been missing out on (despite the fact that they haven’t actually missed these conversations). These “highlights” are tweets chosen by a computer using some seemingly random criteria to decide whether you might be interested in it or not. Unfortunately, most of the time it seems these specially-chosen tweets are of little interest to anyone at all.

Now they’re bringing this to the iPhone app in the form of a special “highlights” timeline that some users have started to see in today’s 5.10 update. You can also get these specially-selected “highlights” sent to your phone as push notifications. I seriously wonder if these artificially curated timelines will soon be the default view, much like Facebook’s “Top Stories,” which started out as optional and eventually became the default view.

But then there are also conversations. The new way Twitter for iPhone handles conversations is maddening. If I reply to a three-day old tweet, that three-day old tweet is now displayed in the main timeline of everyone who follows me and the original tweeter. That means a three-day old tweet they already saw is now in their timeline once again. This happens for every conversation between two people you follow. Twitter says this will make it easier to find and read conversations, and that’s probably true. Unfortunately it also makes it much harder to read your actual timeline, which is far more important to me than reading a bunch of arbitrary conversations I may or may not be interested in.

“But, Mike, just use Tweetbot!” I do use Tweetbot. But consider how many people won’t be able to use Tweetbot—or any other popular client—when they run out of slots for new users. People will slowly be forced into using the official client whether they want to or not. This is far from ideal. It is this type of dictatorial control over the display of content that has made me dislike Facebook. First you cripple the third-party clients by limiting their userbase and access to useful features (such as the Interactions timeline), then once you’ve got as many eyeballs on your official client as possible, you start “curating” the content. A computer somewhere decides which tweets I will be interested in and assigns them some sort of artificial priority, then shows me only the ones it thinks I care about most.

If I was unable to use a third-party app to browse Twitter, instead being forced to use the official client, I would probably be much less active on Twitter, and I suspect this is true for many people. The first-party Twitter app is bad and it’s getting worse, but third-parties are being prohibited from getting any better.

As more and more people are forced into the mechanically-curated, poorly-thought-out confines of Twitter’s botched attempt at a decent client, they will seek out alternative ways to gather online with their friends. Developers, too, will follow the trend (heh) from Twitter to whatever platform comes next, and I have no doubt that whatever platform that is will try to woo them with a robust API free of limitations.

App.net successfully attracted many Twitter developers this way. That service has not taken off nearly as quickly as Twitter. Aside from an obvious branding issue, App.net lacked a critical component for success. A platform needs more than just developers to survive. Until the general population becomes fed up enough with Twitter to look for something new, other services will have a much harder time luring them in. That time has not yet come, but I don’t think it’s far off.

Eventually the “virtual water cooler,” as Twitter has attempted to establish itself, will dry up and users will go somewhere else. I think we’ve been watching this in its early stages for some time now.

This is how Twitter dies.