Is Twitter Like 'Lost', And They're Just Making It Up As They Go Along?

Yesterday I had a blast at the Media140 conference, London’s first micro-blogging event. The crowd was enthusiastic and intelligent, and there was some excellent discourse amongst the panellists and speakers, and some great queries were raised (and in some cases, answered, at least in part).

I suspected that for some of the journalists present there was as much fear as there was excitement about the micro-blogging platform and its potential and ramifications for the newspaper industry (as well as the individuals therein, hence the concern), and this is certainly understandable. Principally because Twitter, the entity and the network, and their own plans and ambitions, are unknown quantities.

I’m a huge fan of the television series Lost. As of this moment it’s my favourite show on TV, and quite possibly all-time, too. The show sizzles with exceptionally groundbreaking, innovative content, and has and will continue to have a huge influence on the industry.

The thing is, like many fans (and, indeed, critics), it’s hard to shake the feeling that they might be pulling a bit of a fast one on us – that they’re just making it all up as they go along. The sixth and final season begins later this year – unless the last few episodes are absolute world-beaters, even if they’re not ‘winging it’ week-to-week and had an A-to-Z plan from day one, a lot of people are going to feel really cheated. It will still feel like they didn’t have a clue; that they just got lucky.

This, too, is my worry for Twitter – that the founders, Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey, completely fluked into something that became popular and influential, but now don’t really have any idea what to do with it. I was chatting to some folks at the Media140 after-party yesterday and the majority are apprehensive about Twitter’s plans. We’re concerned that the time and effort we’ve invested into the service is exponentially increasing the risk of it not paying off, both in a monetary and philosophical sense. Reward, after all, comes in many forms, and we’re all making deposits into the network.

The key questions for both Twitter and Lost remain: where is this all going? And will we like it when we get there?

“The Ultimate Goal Is To Become A Very Broad-Reaching Utility.” ~ Biz Stone

Biz Stone interviews well. He seems a likeable guy and generally says the right things. In this video he talks about the value of Twitter, and makes good points about how even the most vapid tweets have the potential to become hugely significant; from lead to gold, if you will, borrowing his comparison to alchemy.

Which is all well and good. But the quality and impact of tweets on the network doesn’t actually have anything to do with Twitter themselves. They just provided the platform – all of the content is generated by us (and their 47 employees, few of which, somewhat disturbingly, seem to have much idea how to use the service). We could all be tweeting about cures for cancer, or we could all be tweeting about what we had for lunch. While the intellectual capacity of the former has a far greater value for Twitter (and the world) than the latter, the end result – the data – is not something Twitter can actually control. It’s either going to be of great value, or it’s not.

I’ve used Biz’ closing quote in the title of this section, and it can be seen as a profound, forward-thinking statement, providing some evidence that there is a masterplan, with some planning behind it. Or it’s simplistic and vague to the point of being worthless. My gut says it veers more towards the latter. I mean, what the heck is a ‘broad-reaching utility’, anyway, and when has that ever been a measure of success? Netscape was a broad-reaching utility. So was ICQ. Things change – people have a habit of moving on. And fast.

There’s a lot of mystery and secrecy from Twitter, Inc., and some of it doesn’t make a lot of sense until you start to peel away the layers and work around the tweetspeak. For example, they’re very cagey about releasing data about their total number of users. Why? This is an easy and effective way to draw media attention to your product, and that will lead to revenue from advertisers and investors. Facebook proudly boasted of its 200 millionth subscriber. Monthly traffic to is somewhere in the region of 20-25 million visitors per month, but that isn’t users. That isn’t a number that reflects membership. More importantly, it doesn’t in any way allow us to evaluate the number of active accounts, folk who use the service regularly. Again, my gut tells me that Twitter doesn’t release these numbers because that key figure is significantly less than what we expect – maybe just four or five million. Possibly even less.

And if that’s true, certainly if it’s a lot less, suddenly Twitter isn’t much better than rival Friendfeed; in fact, because FF offers a lot more functionality (and listens to their users), and Twitter doesn’t have the numbers, it’s significantly worse.

We Are The Ones Moving The Island – Not Them

Moreover, Twitter as an organisation cannot take an awful lot of credit for much of what works and what is popular on the system. For example, the reply mechanism on the network wasn’t created by Twitter – it was a concept formed by the community. Likewise, re-tweets, hashtags, successful memes like #followfriday, and basically everything else – all these were created and embraced by folks like us. Twitter got on board with @replies, but doesn’t think it’s worthwhile adding a little script to the home page to give all and sundry a one-click re-tweet button.

And when they do introduce a new feature, it often has little value. Consider the ‘Trending Topics’ chart on the home page. Who exactly benefits from this information? Right now on the list is stuff like American Idol and Adam Lambert, who was runner-up in the most-recent season. I don’t watch American Idol, but if I did then I’d already be aware of this information  and it trending within Twitter is therefore redundant to me. And as I don’t watch it, it’s even more so. This goes for 80-90 per cent of the stuff that is in there, too. Having a tally of something doesn’t really matter, especially if it’s ten things I have absolutely zero interest in.

However, Trending Topics would be a very useful feature if I could tailor the output to my own needs – maybe see what’s trending in my network, or amongst a certain demographic, or within a given industry. Then it has real value. As it is, it’s a half-hearted approach to something that as it is at the moment is fundamentally worthless to everybody.

Other times, Twitter will make a “small settings update” that has huge ramifications, act all coy about it, and then make it worse.

Meanwhile, we rely and depend on external services like Tweetmeme and clients such as TweetDeck and Seesmic Desktop to do Twitter’s work for them. In fact, Twitter relies on these products doing their work for them – the service offered by is so basic and simplistic to be almost comedic. More Web 0.2 than 2.0. You want to re-tweet somebody, you need to copy and paste their message – what is this, the mid-90s?

As it is, can only boast a 25 per cent share of all Twitter traffic – three-quarters of their users go elsewhere for their fix. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Imagine if this was the case for Facebook – do you really think Mark Zuckerberg would have let that happen? Doesn’t it say something very important that 75 per cent of your total user-base dislikes the way you package your product?

We Have To Go Forward, Jack (Dorsey) – Not Back

The reality is that unless Twitter has an actual goal, and is working hard towards ensuring that plan becomes a reality, at some point it is inevitable that the system will break down. That 25 per cent share will become 20 per cent within 3-6 months, and probably be at the low teens by this time next year, unless they do or introduce something very special indeed. Twitter, and, needs a purple cow. It needs a new feature so left-field and magical that it not only makes the early adopters and newcomers to the service go ‘WOW!’, but is so tough for the external apps to replicate that it drives a huge percentage of us back to the home page.

Because while Twitter can talk about looking to become a ‘broad-reaching utility’ and mine, harvest and re-package that data to the highest bidders, it’s our data they’re selling. We made it, and we’ll continue to make it, and it’s to all of our benefit to make it good. But here’s the thing: If Twitter, the enterprise, and Twitter, the network, doesn’t start to deliver the goods in a pleasing and imminent manner, and if they continue to focus on celebrities and most of the other worthless accounts that make up the Suggested User list, the quality of that data is going to go downhill fast.

Sure, it’ll keep expanding, but the value will take a serious, serious dip. The hive mind concept is great in principle, but one hundred million people talking about American Idol has, I would propose, slightly less of a commercial (and intellectual) value than a five-million strong think tank that can effectively debate and answer anything thrown at them. This is true of your own network, too – better to have 500 eyes on you, than 50,000 always looking somewhere else.

I don’t expect the publication of a five-year plan with intricate detail – even Google doesn’t do that – but I would like to see something. Just a little taster. Just a teeny, tiny clue that you know what’s going on, that you’re going to lead us somewhere special, and that the journey is going to be the equal of the destination.

I’m quietly confident that Lost is going to pull it off, and I hope that Twitter can, too. Because if we get to the end and Biz tells us, “Ha ha, it was all just a dream!” a lot of heads are going to roll. Yours and mine included.