10 Ideas That Could Save Twitter

A decade-long power user asked for suggestions, and they poured in

Headshot of David Griner

Twitter may be down, but it's certainly not out.

Sure, its user growth is dwindling, its leadership is departing, its stock is tanking, and its fortunes generally seem to be in decline.

But what Twitter lacks in unfettered growth it makes up for in relevance. When Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa cross swords over marriage and marijuana, they do so on Twitter. When Oprah single-handedly lifts a brand's stock price 23 percent, she does so on Twitter. And when a politician gaffes so hard it sparks a mocking hashtag, he or she (but probably he) does so on Twitter.

Jeremiah Owyang, an influential Twitter user since its first year (2006), certainly hasn't given up hope. This week, he put out a call for suggestions from his network about how Twitter could reverse its apparent decline. 

Tellingly, he did so on Facebook, but the result was a fascinating compilation of more than 100 responses from revered tech industry pundits and armchair analysts alike. Here's how he framed the question:

With Owyang's permission, we've sifted through the responses and organized them into a few recurring themes and thought-provoking ideas:

1. Bring Developers Back In

In 2012, Twitter essentially exiled third-party developers with a new set of rules that severed access to a previously wide-open API. The company also cracked down on the use of names that might imply an official Twitter partnership, like image-sharing service Twitpic. 

The move was intended to make the user experience more consistent and bring more popular features in-house to official Twitter apps, but the experience also turned many developers against the very social network they'd been trying to support.

Late last year, newly installed CEO Jack Dorsey apologized to the developer community and said he wants to have "an open and honest relationship with our developers." But many in Owyang's network said Twitter has a long way to go:

Jesse Stay: Twitter killed an entire business of mine from their lack of care for developers—they lost me a lot of money. What would get me back is a personal apology from them, and working with me, with a human alongside, to build my business to where it was when they killed it. They'll never do that though.

Cindy Ratzlaff: Announce Twitter is going to open up the platform to developers again and let the people decide how they want to use Twitter, which third-party apps they want to use and get the early creativity of real users going again. In other words, stop getting in their own way.

Steve Broback: Reinstate all those great apps and services that made discovery and use of the platform viable. Reinstate all deprecated APIs. Reinstate the API call limits I had in 2009.

2. Make Video Painless and Potent

Twitter has embraced video, in theory. But in practice it can be a frustrating forum for watching (and especially posting) video. Several respondents said Twitter has to find a way to lean into video without breaking the browsability that defines the Twitter experience.

Josh Bernoff: Rewrite the interface around video. Take what's working in Moments and Vine and turn it loose. Regarding monetization—it's video. Video ads will sell.

John Rogers: Double down on their only growth area: Video (Vine & Periscope) and use it to solidify their position as The Place to see what's happening right now in the world, essentially becoming a real-time YouTube.

Not all commenters agreed, though, with some feeling a video focus would be too disruptive to Twitter:

Augie Ray: I'm not wild about this. Twitter succeeds because it's scannable. I'm fine with video as part of the mix, but I don't think Twitter should organize around video.

Carri Bugbee: Video is too time-consuming to…consume. It would make it virtually unpalatable for business purposes and hard to build a good ad product because video isn't scannable the way text is.

3. Embrace Black Twitter

While Twitter's year-in-review video showed clear pride in its role as a forum for social justice causes, the company has always been a bit flummoxed about how to build on the phenomenon known widely as Black Twitter. 

Jeremy Pepper: Embrace what is working, kill what isn't working, and realize and embrace the communities that are using the platform. Twitter ignores Black Twitter to its detriment and seems to not see who the users are on the platform.

Carri Bugbee: A big YES to Jeremy's idea! Twitter should be trying to embrace all sorts of users: black, urban youth, Latina shoppers, TV fans. However, to boost diversity of thought, Twitter [as an employer] needs a lot more diversity of color, gender and age. Twenty-something and 30-something white, upper- or middle-class coder dudes can only come up with so many original ideas (as it turns out, not that many).

Dwayne Samuels: Place a significant emphasis on minorities, especially POC (people of color), as they create some of the most engaging content there.

4. Create Niche Communities Similar to Subreddits

Twitter's early appeal was that it brought together like-minded users, locally and around the world. But as it grew and became more noisy, finding and following those who share your interests became more challenging. Twitter Lists have never quite fit the bill, and several suggestions on Oywang's thread centered on how Twitter could get back to its role as a hub for microcommunities.

Corey O'Neal: What I've always heard from power users of Twitter is that it allows them to communicate and build relationships with people they never would have met before. Twitter needs to refocus its app on enhancing that experience. How is Twitter helping users organize micro-communities? They're not. There's no subreddit. They're instead centralizing with features like Moments when they should be empowering the decentralization.

Carri Bugbee: The most important thing Twitter could do to both help new users get value quickly and differentiate from Facebook is to create and/or foster third-party creation of tools and features that help people connect with larger numbers of like-minded people (aka topic-based conversation), even if you don't already know those people. Obviously, this has been happening for years with hashtags on Twitter, which is why we know it will work. Taking an activity that people do organically (with little to no help) and then making that easier and more fun is the smartest thing any media/interactive company can do.

5. Go Local

Part of Twitter's core value is that it enables global conversations in real time, but in its early days it also helped bring together local users who shared passions for tech and other interests. For some commenters, a more local mindset holds the key to Twitter's hopes for truly mainstream adoption.

Rod Bauer: I interviewed at Twitter in 2008 for the position of Business Product Manager in charge of monetization. As part of that interview process, I gave Twitter a brainstorming document that explored various monetization strategies. There were a number of different approaches that I offered, but looking back I think the most interesting centered around enabling businesses and organizations to offer hyper-local products, services, and information to their community on an opt-in basis that took advantage of both the near real-time and mobile nature of the Twitter service. I had a few interviews with the top people then at Twitter, but no one ever engaged in a discussion about what I proposed. That was very disappointing and I feel that Twitter missed the chance to pursue some really ground-breaking revenue opportunities unique to the Twitter culture and service.

6. Make Ads Rarer, More Visible and More Valuable

This idea wasn't one widely recommended by Owyang's respondents, and it certainly goes against the trend of high-quantity, low-cost advertising that has made Facebook an ad revenue juggernaut. But it would still be a fascinating move for Twitter to eliminate the ad clutter and just have one or two top-dollar ad slots per day in the vein of Snapchat's early and lucrative approach.

Steve Broback: Throw one promotional tweet a day in the stream that hits everyone, and charge a bundle for it.

7. Get Truly Serious about Spam

No popular social site has ever been saddled with as much of an ongoing, infuriating spam problem as Twitter has. From the network's earliest days, spam has been a daily headache for users and driven many away. While Twitter has helped curb problem areas like direct-message (DM) spam, the network remains cluttered with fly-by-night accounts that plague hashtags and news feeds.

Chris Reimer: Declare World War III on spam. The user experience will be vastly improved almost immediately. Newbies will "get it" much more quickly, and won't be scared away by the bizarre BS spam that now sullies the whole experience.

8. Consider the Idea of Beneficial Bots

We're entering a golden age of AI and socially savvy robots, but Twitter has remained (rightly) skeptical of bot accounts on its system. Most of the harmless ones are allowed to survive, but Twitter certainly hasn't gone around promoting the idea of automated services via Twitter. Maybe that should change.

Robb M.: Twitter could also add the ability for Corporate clients to access a bot network that has been trained by Twitter to take reservations, deal with some simple CS scenarios, and increase brand engagement and customer satisfaction through an API that paid clients have access to.

Mike McEuen: Embed Twitter as a messenger medium for properties outside Twitter's walls. Example: see tweet reviews of a restaurants on Yelp. Make a reservation with a tweet.

9. Personalize the Moments Feature

Twitter seems especially proud of its Moments offering, which aggregates some of the more interesting tweets about a trending topic or event. However, it felt like more of an evolution than a revolution in terms of advancing Twitter's benefits for users. Some think Twitter should shift the focus of Moments to be more customized to each user, letting you see what's being discussed in your areas of interest.

Beth Shanna Carpenter: Get users back in and as engaged as your average Facebook user, and monetization takes care of itself. Twitter's big issue is contextual. I log in to Facebook, I see things that matter to me. I look at my Twitter timeline and I don't, even though I've carefully built it over the last eight years. I look at my Lists first. Moments is a great integration, but it's not personalized. Combine Moments with Lists and allow me to more easily build an algorithmic contextualized feed, and Twitter triples in value for me—and I'm a power user! I have trouble understanding how Twitter ever keeps new users with the overwhelming amount of content without context.

10. Just Sell to the Right Bidder

Is Twitter's biggest obstacle simply the fact that it's owned by Twitter? Several of Owyang's commenters (and quite a few industry observers, based on recent headlines) feel the only hope for Twitter to truly enter a new era is if it's acquired by a company with the breadth and resources of a Google or a Facebook.

Brad Kellmayer: Sad to say, I would position it for a sale above the stock option I was granted as a new employee and get out. I don't see Twitter as a stand-alone company for much longer.

For more opinions, you can read (or add to) Owyang's conversation on Facebook, or hit him up on Twitter … assuming you're still using it.

@griner david.griner@adweek.com David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."