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Twitter’s Landscaping Problem

Twitter. On the surface, it’s another year, another bitch session. Developers are up in arms! Everyone is threatening to leave! Or, at least, hundreds of people! There’s talk of open source competitors! It’s over! Maybe!

We’ve seen the same basic story repeated so many times over the years that I’ve grown numb. So when this latest cycle of stories hit, I barely gave any a second look. But this time, as the stories keep coming, I have this nagging feeling that something is actually different.

Everything is starting to point to something bigger. To that end, reading over Mike Isaac’s piece today has me worried.

Outside of the company itself and its investors, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Twitter-cheerleader than me over the years. In the early days, when most people were still in the “this is the dumbest thing ever” mindset, I raved about the potential. During its years of seemingly endless downtime, I stayed true. I laughed off efforts like Identi.ca. And even defended Twitter in times when they took action that was viewed by some as “hostile”.

But again, this feels different.

Twitter is obviously in the midst of a massive shift right now. And for the first time in a long while, I’m not sure it’s in the right direction. It’s not so much the developer ecosystem kerfuffle that has me worried (though that’s directly related), it’s where the product itself seems to be headed.

By putting such an emphasis on the so-called “Cards”, Twitter runs the risk of altering what the service is at a fundamental level. Rich content will seemingly be on equal footing with the 140-character text of old. It may even be more emphasized in the ongoing effort to monetize.

To be clear, I understand why Twitter is doing this. Everyone should. It’s so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be explained. But just in case, my friend Hunter laid it out in very clear terms last week. Twitter is not a non-profit. It needs to make money. And it has chosen a path to do that.

My concern is that this choice is dictating core product decisions and leading it down the wrong path. Of course, I’m not in a position to know that for sure. And clearly the company is doing what it thinks is best. And I’m sure we’ll hear about how this move makes sense for more “mainstream” usage.

But again, I’m just not so sure.

Rarely is more better. But with Twitter, I think it’s actually detrimental. Twitter was born out of simplicity. It’s the natural extension of post cards and SMS and status messages. It’s the service that everyone in the world should have access to regardless of device.

These Twitter Cards sounds like a move in the opposite direction. Rich media, best viewed on computers and smartphones. Shiny stuff. Distractions. And ads. It just doesn’t sound like Twitter.

Twitter is not a newspaper. It’s not a gaming platform. It’s not a TV network. It’s potentially more powerful than all of those things because it’s so simple. It’s not as sexy as Facebook right now, and the road to billions of users may be slower, but it has the ability to be timeless. If it stays the course.

If.

The unfortunate side effect of all of this appears to be a systematic degradation of the Twitter ecosystem. There’s no question that this ecosystem helped Twitter get to the position it’s in now. Twitter became an indispensable part of many services over the past several years. And as a result, it became indispensable to many of us for different reasons.

Twitter has become a key part of the fabric of the web. It’s been woven into everything. You can’t just retract those threads without ripping apart a good portion of the web at the seams. The result will not be pretty.

But Twitter wants to move towards being a more tightly-controlled hub. A tightly wound ball of yarn, if you will. It wants other services to weave threads into it. Like Facebook.

But Facebook hasn’t had to pull off what will be a near-180 maneuver to make this happen. To use another metaphor, Twitter sure seems to be attempting to shove the genie back in the bottle. And at this scale, I’m not sure it will work.

Of course, while the tech savvy argue and complain about this stuff, the public at large gives zero fucks. But they will care if the product itself becomes something else. And they’ll care if other services they love start to disappear or become less useful due to Twitter’s policy changes. For the first time, it really sounds like this could happen in a major way.

At the same time, I also think back to November 2009. Twitter was on the verge of rolling out its native retweet functionality and then-CEO Evan Williams took to his blog to lay-out why it was making what, at the time, was a significant change. This was the first big step beyond 140 characters. As I noted at the time, there was a risk associated with the move: complexity could overwhelm the insanely simple service.

And yet, Twitter passed that test — with flying colors, you could say. The network is now several times larger and retweeting is used at a level that probably would have never been achieved if Twitter has kept the old manual “RT”.

So there’s some hope. But I keep going back to this bad feeling I have. I see the current Twitter Card offerings and I’m extremely underwhelmed. I don’t get the point of the news excerpts. Inline pictures are fine, but I don’t think I want to play micro-games inside of Twitter. I certainly don’t want to watch long-form video content there. And so I’m worried once again that all of these “extras” are going to overwhelm and distract from what Twitter has always really been about: information.

I’m not going to pretend that I know what the business model should be. But I don’t think it’s big, rich in-stream sponsored content. I think such a model may work fine for other networks, but that’s not what Twitter has ever been about.

That’s why I’m so worried. It’s not the ecosystem stuff. And it’s not the need to monetize. But it’s the product changes that seem directly related to those things. It’s the thought that Twitter may not be Twitter anymore.

I fully realize that I sound like the old man shouting at the kids to get off of my lawn. But there’s a reason they want to play on my lawn. And I worry that the landscapers are about to turn it into a swamp.

 
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