In starting a significant project, an engineer knows the first three big design decisions you make are vastly more important than the second three.
The nature of these decisions varies from project to project. They may be choices about look and feel, rules about architecture, or trade offs regarding feature set. Whatever these decisions are, they set a tone that defines the success of the project.
When I look at Twitter, I see three early essential decisions about how Twitter allows you to craft a community. I believe much of Twitter’s continued success is due to definition and execution of these decisions.
Interestingly, some obvious candidates for the Top 3, like “Scales like crazy”, “Will generate money”, and “Needs to be searchable” weren’t initially there.
The decisions were:
These are simple decisions of empowerment. As Twitter’s popularity grows exponentially, both veteran users and recent arrivals need to remember that these basic decisions mean Twitter is yours to build with however you choose.
Yeah, Britney’s here now. Barack was here for a bit. I hear Shaq is figuring out Twitter as well. Yeah, these folks have an inordinate number of followers and are saying nothing particularly interesting, but they do not embody what makes Twitter great. Twitter is great because of choices made to allow you build whatever you want.
Decision #1: A user chooses whom they follow.
This might have been your first Twitter crisis: why am I here?
“Well, I hear so’n’so was on Twitter and I like them, so I followed them so I could figure out what the hell this Twitter thing was all about.”
You added folks. You looked at whom others you respected were following and you added more. Then, someone pissed you off. Someone said something that was not aligned with the vibe of your Twitterstream and you got cranky.
Every couple of weeks, a meme stressing about “an increase in Twitter spam” wanders the Internet. Each time I see this meme appear, I turn away from my keyboard and bang my head against my desk three times.
Twitter spam. Really? Are you even paying attention? I’ll say it again, you choose who you follow. If you’re following a newsbot, you’re going to get news spam. If you follow a good friend who can’t stop RTing, you’re going to to get retweet spam, but complaining about it is like standing the middle of a freeway asking, “Why do these cars keep hitting me?”
“But Rands, I need to follow this person, but they won’t shut up.”
There’s a legitimate complaint here. I’m certain there’s a sensible feature request based on this complaint, like “Please don’t show me tweets contain RT or @” or maybe a feature to put someone you follow on Twitter time-out during that weekend drinking binge where they won’t shut up about their ex-girlfriend. Yes, these features could be added to the base platform, but why complicate a feature you already have? You unfollow. It’s brutally simple and it solves the problem.
Decision #2: A user chooses whom they will no longer follow.
My theory regarding folks who complain about Twitter spam is that they, like me, have been traumatized by decades of email spam. You believe that Twitter spam is inevitable because, well, we lost the war against email spam, so we’re going to loser the Twitter spam war, as well.
You can win this war.
Think if you had the following power over your email inbox. When a piece of spam showed up, you could press a single button and guarantee that you would never receive that type of mail again. Poof. We just eliminated the billion-dollar spam detection and prevention industry with this dream. That’s exactly what Twitter made possible with Decision #2 and they did it with class.
If you choose, you receive a notification when someone starts following you, but have you noticed there is no similar notification when they leave? I find this omission telling. While I can’t confirm the feature omission was deliberate, I hope it was. The simple choice to not broadcast a departing follower strikes me as saying, “We are choosing to focus Twitter’s community conversations on what’s being built, not what’s being taken apart.”
A service like Qwitter quickly appeared to fill the gap, but unless you’re getting paid by your number of followers, getting lost in figuring out why someone is no longer following you is a waste of time. Their departure has nothing to do with you; it has to do with them and the experience they want out of Twitter.
Decision #3: A user should be judged only by what they say.
Take a look at the decisions Twitter made regarding your profile. It’s a spartan, 160-character bio, your location, and a URL. None of which you actually need to fill out. This is decidedly not Facebook. There is no feature in Twitter which tells who in your graduating class has a Twitter account. If you don’t know the person whose account you’re checking out, you’re forced to think. You make a choice to follow not based on where they live, where they went to school, what they do, or whom they know. What matters is what they say.
Yes, this rule says should because there’s no way my hippie utopian vision of a world where bright ideas connect bright people is going to last. Barack hasn’t said much since the election, but still garners thousands of followers a week. Mr. Tweet robotically scrubs your follower list and offers automated helpful advice regarding followers of followers that you might be interested in, and I’ve found some “Well, duh, I should be following them” folks.
Twitter is mainstream and lots of time and energy is being spent analyzing and judging Twitter habits. “He’s got 17,123 followers and only follows THREE PEOPLE. Jerk.” Who cares? Yes, some folks have huge numbers of followers, whereas others have 12. This gives these massively followed people a larger stage for their 140 characters, but because someone has a pile of followers doesn’t mean I ever want my search altered by someone else’s subjective calculation regarding “authority”. I define my own authority. I prioritize.
This is My House
Think of your Twitter account as your house. This is my house. Your house is different. You’re trying to figure out how to use Twitter to monetize eyeballs. Good luck with all that. For me, Twitter remains a place for casual information. For me, a tweet is still a note I tie to a balloon, which I let go and think, “Who is going to read that one?” Sometimes I look and see where it ended up, sometimes I don’t.
In my house, I want to create an illusion of a two-way conversation, which means I continue to prune followers so that content flows at a consumable rate. If I get the sense that I’ve lost control over my Twitterspace, I’ll stop going — the same way my fancy new mail rule files once important messages straight into the well-intentioned To Forget folder.
This is my house and I’m still deciding how I want it built and, thankfully, Twitter decided to be spartan and to stay out of the way. I think they knew the construction of your community is your deal. Bitching about it means you haven’t figured it out for yourself.