First some very detailed background.
The Beginning: I joined Twitter in Feb 2007 so that I could live-Tweet the Irish Blog Awards results via SMS. It was when Twitter finally clicked with me. 2007-2008 was a fantastic time to be on Twitter if you had even a modicum of programming ability. There’s a chance it could be so again.
CorkProbs: Whilst LouderVoice took up 95% of my time around then, the other 5% was thinking about all of the incredible things that Twitter facilitated. I was particularly proud of my CorkProbs app which let you send problems related to roads/water/lights by @‘ing CorkProbs. The idea was that people would send those via SMS so they didn’t need a smartphone. I then took the RSS feed from that account and created a status site using Planet. There were only two problems with it. First, I never contacted Cork County Council to tell them to monitor it and second, there were probably only 20 people in Cork on Twitter at the time!
Mini-Reviews: My other inspired App was @review where you could send a specially structured review Tweet and we would aggregate those reviews into LouderVoice. Again we were trying to do things on Twitter long before critical mass, so it never took off.
Login with Twitter: I stopped the personal experiments when OAuth came in but we added Twitter Login to LouderVoice as soon as it was launched. Of the three identity options used by reviewers on LouderVoice, email is about 99%, Facebook is about 1% and Twitter is about 0.00000001%. In fact, in the entire time the LouderVoice business reviews service has been in operation, I think we’ve had fewer than 20 logins via Twitter.
HushVine: In 2011 we kicked off HushVine which was initially designed to be the ultimate Twitter filtering service. It would show you all the stuff you found interesting and hide all the crap and it would do it in a sharable way (“show me the best of the World Cup” or “hide every tweet about the goddammed World Cup”). We did some really successful widget proofs of concept with The Irish Examiner for the Irish Presidential election and Budget and also did a mobile app for Web Summit. Once we took part in the LaunchPad accelerator program, we narrowed it to TV and got some strong interest from local media organisations. But the Twitter API changes, Tweet-display changes, firehose changes and Twitter’s own interest in TV told me we’d be roadkill, so we put it on ice. I’m currently reading the Twitter book and finally getting some insight into those decisions by Twitter.
Alternatives: So we got to 2014 and I’d done the Jaiku thing, the status.net thing, the Buzz thing, the Google+ thing, the App.net thing and the Twister thing and yet I kept coming back to Twitter as a user. But under no circumstances would I consider building anything on Twitter as I’d just be waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me without warning (cf Facebook too).
Fabric: And then last month Twitter announced Fabric and I had to take a step back and think about things again.
I’ve had a lot of titles in my career from Engineer to CEO to Director of Product Management, but I’ve realised that even from my first job, I was always a Product Manager. I was never responsible for just “the code”, I almost always had to figure out exactly what it was the customer wanted to ship overall because they rarely knew themselves. Design Services and Professional Services are a great learning environment for this. Even when writing Interrupt Service Routines I was also generating powerpoint decks about the entire product’s features & benefits for others to use. What that has given me is an ability to look at individual Engineering features on their own merit but then set them in the context of the overall product and/or platform.
Which is why I find Fabric extremely interesting. I think this first micro-step in Twitter regaining developer confidence could succeed if they can provide a stable platform that benefits everyone: users, Twitter, advertisers and third party developers.
Platform: And that’s the point, Twitter has always been a platform to me, not a site. It’s a way of quickly getting information from those who have it to those who want it.
By taking a monetisable platform approach (note, not a dumb pipe), we can all benefit and Twitter can undo some of their most controversial decisions from the past, specifically the hard limits on third party client tokens. I completely understand why this was done due to the threat from UberMedia but I also think it has been holding the user growth back hugely.
Most of my Twitter interaction nowadays is via Tweetcaster Pro and Janetter but why couldn’t I have an X-Factor Twitter Client or a One Direction Client? Something that is both specific to a brand but also a full-blown Twitter client with rev-share? It seems nuts to me that I pay the creators of Tweetcaster/Janetter some small one-off fee for their app to access Twitter, none of which goes to Twitter but then there aren’t even ads in those apps. The key to being able to build rich apps is obviously Gnip and the firehose. But rather than Gnip being something a developer pays for, it should be a freely accessible programmable datasource with contextual advertising in-lined and rev-shared.
Ads: As a user, I remain shocked at how bad both Twitter and Facebook are at targeted advertising. I have close to 50,000 tweets and years of Facebook updates but I’ve never once seen an ad on either site that I would click on. I’m pretty clear with my purchase intent on Twitter, heck I even Tweet what KickStarter projects I back. But nothing useful, ever.
Again, this can be solved by a platform approach where third party developers deliver specific demographic groups to Twitter which generates the relevant ads and offers rev-share. TwAdsense. And the thing is, this doesn’t even need logged-in Twitter users, just vertical apps that use the platform to grab information of relevance for their user niches. Whilst Twitter’s MoPub has a classic Ad Network model, it looks like the developer has to do all the work around targeting. It also doesn’t seem that related to Twitter per-se, just mobile in general.
TV: Then Twitter doesn’t have to worry about “doing TV” or “doing sports”, it just has to provide the platform base to allow others to do that. In the specific case of TV, the on-screen integrations have become ridiculous. Two examples - MythBusters where Twitter was taking up 1⁄3 of the screen and Big Driver where we were encouraged to Tweet along, whilst a woman was being sexually assaulted in the TV show. Twitter is a second screen experience and trying to dominate the first screen is deeply intrusive, like the worst kind of product placement.
Mobile: Fabric’s focus on mobile is absolutely the right thing to do. I love Digits for its beautiful simplicity. As I said on Twitter when it launched:
But, Dave Winer is right, all the Fabric services absolutely have to get a JS implementation. Not just for Cordova Apps but also to reinvigorate Twitter web-app development. Like Dave, I’m a huge fan of Dropbox’s JS approach. In fact I’ve recently wondered if you could build a Twitter clone for your friends where Dropbox is that platform :-)
Old Media: Why shouldn’t a person’s entire Twitter interaction happen on the New York Times site? Not just using the old branded Twitter widgets but an entirely custom NYT UI where, yet again, it’s based around Ad rev-share. This is the complete opposite of Facebook where they want everything to happen on FB. Twitter should be old media’s best friend against Facebook, giving them new revenue streams and new ways to get people on their site.
Direct Messages: Seriously Twitter, Digits + Direct Messages = WhatsApp. It’s time to make DMs a first class citizen in the platform. You want stratospheric user growth? DMs! My 72 year old mother has just joined WhatsApp on her Nokia S40 phone so she can IM from Kilkenny in Ireland to her grandson in New York. He’s on Twitter. She could be on Twitter with Digits+DMs.
Lists+Filters: I know I know. Lists never get much use on any site, including Twitter and Facebook. Except, I couldn’t deal with either site without them. Lists on Facebook get rid of the goddammed algorithmic filtering and my “Mobile” List on Twitter is where I spend most of my time reading.
A combination of shareable Powerful Lists+Filters would make Twitter infinitely more accessible to a much bigger audience. What are you interested in? Soccer? What Team? Liverpool? Bam - a pre-canned filtered Liverpool FC bundle ready to go, that may have been crowd-sourced, not created by Twitter. Forget the concept of following people for users like this, they should follow filtered lists. This was basically the HushVine concept and it’s still valid. And can you think of a more perfectly tuned advertising audience? One based on interests.
Aside, Power-user rant: Speaking of algorithms, unless Twitter has invented Skynet in the past few months, their chances of showing me tweets I want to see are zero. They still think the person most suitable for me to follow is Barack Obama. Nice guy I’m sure, no interest in following him on Twitter. If they add algorithmic insertion of tweets, it has to be optional or they’ve just become Facebook. But the reason we love Twitter is that it isn’t Facebook.
Useful Big Data: Of course 2014 is all about the IoT hawtness but I’ve always thought that Twitter should be the conduit for useful IoT info. I wired the Bandon Flood Warning system into Twitter years ago. Now it is done manually but it still has quite a few locals following it for those alerts. I’ve always been amazed that Twitter or others haven’t built big-data analysis of the geo-movement of storm/hurricane tweets and then layered useful commercial information on top. So many useful tweets crying out to be Hadooped, used and monetised. Watching popular hashtags or search terms in the early days was a joy. Trying to do it during any major event in recent years has been ridiculous. I end up back watching human-curated stuff elsewhere. Twitter was supposed to replaced that with smarts. And if it can’t, let others do it without putting roadblocks in their way.
Win, Win, Win, Win: So in summary, yes, Twitter can re-build the developer ecosystem but it’s not going to be easy and there has to be a very clear immediate revenue-based ROI for developers to start using the Fabric tools and whatever else is coming next. Even more than trust, what Twitter has to offer is guaranteed stability/continuity. No more rug-pulling, no more sun-setting, no more competing with developers. There is absolutely no reason why Twitter can’t be bigger than Facebook, but they’ll need developers to get them there.