Sunday, December 10

Should Twitter ignore its users



For the last 48 hours Twitter has been… well, all of a Twitter.

An article in Buzzfeed suggesting that the social network was about to introduce what is known as an algorithmic timeline – promoting tweets deemed most relevant rather than publishing them in reverse chronological order – sparked a wave of what can only be described as furious panic.

Under the hashtag #RIPTwitter, thousands, perhaps millions, told the world that this was the end of civilisation as we know it, that a beautiful thing was being crushed, that the company, whose share price has been tumbling for months, was signing its own death warrant.

Finally, the CEO Jack Dorsey was forced to react. “Hello Twitter!” he called out. “Regarding #RIPTwitter: I want you all to know we’re always listening. We never planned to reorder timelines next week.”

He went on “Twitter is live. Twitter is real-time. Twitter is about who & what you follow. And Twitter is here to stay! By becoming more Twitter-y.”

But was Dorsey right to blink in the face of pressure? And should he be “always listening” to his users? That depends on whether you believe the hoariest old cliche of management books: “The customer is always right.”

I certainly sympathise with those who say that Twitter isn’t broken, so it does not need the kind of radical fixing implied by an algorithmic timeline. For me, it works just fine, connecting me to like-minded communities of dog-owners, sourdough loaf bakers, and gadget enthusiasts, while providing the best breaking news service on the planet.

Like many other heavy users of Twitter, I have been sniffy about recent innovations such as “Moments” and would rather things carried on just as they are. But perhaps Dorsey and his management team should not be listening to people like me – we’re almost certainly going nowhere. He has to cock an ear to the concerns of three other constituencies – investors, advertisers and the people who use Twitter infrequently or not at all.

Because the crisis in his company is not about revenues, which are growing nicely, and it’s not about what loyal users think – it is about growth. The last set of results showed Twitter user numbers had barely moved over the previous three months, up just four million.

Investors who bought into the business when it floated on the hope that it would grow at the same rate as Face-book, shuddered at that news and will be watching nervously when the next set of results is published on Wednesday. Advertisers are asking why they should spend money with a network when it is not delivering the kind of audience available elsewhere. So Twitter’s top team is trying all kinds of tricks to make the experience of joining and using the network more intuitive.

And there’s another reason why Jack Dorsey might be tempted to ignore those users protesting about a change that has not even happened yet. If he looks at the history of Facebook, he will see that just about every innovation introduced by Mark Zuckerberg has met with dismay from existing users. Here’s how Techcrunch reported the arrival of something called Newsfeed in 2006:

“There has been an overwhelmingly negative public response to Facebook’s launch of two new products yester-day. The products, called News Feed and Mini Feed, allow users to get a quick view of what their friends are up to, including relationship changes, groups joined, pictures uploaded, etc., in a streaming news format.”

Petitions were signed, boycotts organised, but quite soon the News Feed was seen as core to the Facebook experience, and then when it was tweaked there were again protests – from people who thought it was just perfect as it was. By the way, Zuckerberg’s reaction to the Newsfeed protests was to say: “Breathe. We hear you…” and then carry on with his original plan.

So the customer is not always right, and if you listen too closely to your existing users, you will end up preserving your site in aspic. That would be fine by me – I like Twitter in its current form. But maybe Jack Dorsey should ignore me.