If All Birds Could Fly

twitter-logoTwitter has been both an amazing service and an incredibly frustrating company nearly it’s entire existence. From the beginning when the founders made a service that they knew they liked but somehow didn’t understand, to the point where the company had more Fail Whales than hours of uptime, to when they decided that those who actually knew the service best should be strangled out of building on it, to today when they have no permanent CEO, a founder wants to come back, even though it’s not apparent what he’s going to do differently than his first go around, their stock is sinking, their goodwill is nearly burned through and the passion for the service has died off. How did we get here?

Hindsight being 20/20, we can easily answer that, and in doing so, we might find a solution to what can fix things.

I’ve been a twitter user since early 2007. I found I liked its concise communication, and more importantly, I liked the people I found on the system. Twitter wasn’t particularly about who you knew, it was about what shared interests you had and who else had them. It was the social network not for your real life, but to improve your real life. That was, and is, revolutionary.

More importantly, Twitter fulfilled a niche in our culture that accentuates what Facebook, Friendster, MySpace et all couldn’t do, because Twitter was ‘now’. Every other social media is the past. Things we’ve done. Things we’ve seen. Things we used to care about. Twitter, while still maintaining an archive that allows you to venture into the past, wasn’t and isn’t focused on the past. It’s focused on the now. That, too, is revolutionary.

It seems that two revolutions might be causing confusion, because somehow the people that founded it didn’t get this. There used to be a saying: “Facebook is the people I know and already hate. Twitter is the people I wish I knew in real life.” The really amazing part of Twitter in the early days is that if you followed people who you liked that happened to be on Twitter, they could follow you back, and you could create a relationship with them. That relationship could lead to many interesting things, up to and including actually meeting these amazing people in real life.

This didn’t just happen to me, it was common. I say “was” because something stupid happened inside Twitter that was the first of many clues that the corporation doesn’t understand the product they produce: they made it so that when someone replied to a person you weren’t following, you didn’t see the replies. Why? Twitter claimed it was to keep your timeline clean.

Do you know why I’m following the people I follow? I follow them because they have insights into the world around us that I lack, and those insights are freely given and awesomely on display in their tweets. Free! Open to the public (mostly)! And Twitter thought they were clutter! No, people, they are not clutter. In fact, they were and remain the easiest way to find smart people who are passionate about the same things that you’re passionate about, and I can’t see them in my stream without going to look for them.

What’s worse, Twitter included a mechanism to override the hiding of the reply, and everyone has seen this. The dot-lead tweet is a miasma of idiocy for one very real, tragic, reason: the people who use it shouldn’t, and even they don’t use it when they should. I follow a couple of people who constantly use the dot-lead to show their blistering wit or to enlist help in a flame war. I’ve been stupid enough to jump in and play along a few times, until it got through my head that it’s a waste of time and no one really cares. Those are the wrong moments to engage your entire following, yet it’s the only time people think to do so (again, I’m guilty of this).

When people are calm, lucid, and tweeting through a discussion with another person on Twitter, you see magic. Reasoned thinking and collaborative, concise, back-and-forth leads to amazing things, and that always, always, happens without the dot-lead because the participants have two things happening – they are conversing about something that they are both engaged in, and it’s not about anyone else. They never think to open the discussion to the wider world because they aren’t there to give a speech or hold a public debate, they are simply chatting.

Yet Twitter allows the rest of us to see it. This is magic. I can see a fantastic conversation happening between two of the leads at Pixar as they discuss a working environment that produces some of my most beloved stories. A work environment that I have little chance of seeing, much less of occupying in a professional capacity, but that I get to understand from some of the people who not only work in it, but who helped to make it a reality in the first place. In public. For free. It’s a thrilling reality, on display many times a day.

While over on Facebook, I get a funny cat picture. That’s nice.

Somehow Twitter is failing. Its stock is down below its IPO. It’s leaderless, and it’s managed to alienate the people who gave the service the power it had to change the world. When you send a tweet, you’re using the terminology that was developed by the team at The Iconfactory, not at Twitter. The Iconfactory came up with Ollie, a little bluebird of happiness, long before twitter even called their messages tweets. Even putting the @ before a username wasn’t a convention that Twitter came up with, but they adopted that one almost immediately. It was a tweet directed @ev that caused that, and it was integrated immediately. Hashtags are very much Twitter-centric, and again, weren’t something that Twitter invented. Twitter acquired a third-party search tool, integrated them, and hashtags were then a part of the system. And now, the world.

All the innovation for how people used Twitter came from people using Twitter and developers building things for people to use Twitter. All of it.

Naturally, a company that didn’t understand its own product and didn’t like that others appeared to not only get it, but got it well enough to invent things and make money on top of it, decided to do the only thing that would make things worse for everyone: cut off third-party developers from the API and bring everything in house. In-house development had made Twitter, but not most of the reasons people loved using Twitter. They brought in a CEO that didn’t use the product and didn’t understand its magic, and didn’t believe in anything but business school, money, investors, and the valley. Last time I checked, business school teaches you about things that have happened. Twitter is truly something new, so business school might not yet have a semester on its particular magic.

Regardless, Twitter has to figure out what it wants to be, and I have a suggestion: be Twitter. And be everywhere. If it’s everywhere, everyone will want to use it, because it becomes the one thing it’s really amazing at: What’s Happening NOW.

I want Twitter everywhere. I want to be able to have it in my car, read to me by Siri via Twitterrific, telling me that the polls show that Trump’s dumped, that the middle east is enjoying a turmoil-free day and that JC Penney is having a sale on fat pants and I could swing in and get some. Yes, I want the service to succeed and that means I have to deal with it making money somehow, and that probably means ads. Fine, just make them not suck.

A quick digression re: Advertising not sucking.

There’s a premise out there that people hate ads. That’s a lie. People love some ads. People hate plenty of them, but here’s the secret: people generally hate an ad for its delivery, not its product. Remember pop-up ads? Think hard, and I bet you realize that now you love Netflix, but if you ever see another pop-up or pop-under ad for them you’ll think of canceling the service. If you’re annoying me and shouting in my face, I’m probably not going to enjoy it, and that disgruntlement transfers to your product as a lost sale. If you’re nice, clever, cute and endearing, or even just clean and simple, I’m far more likely to engage with your ad and become a customer. The best example of this is The Deck ads. I’ve been a fan since I first came across them on Daringfireball in 2004. When Twitterrific launched, they had a free version that included showing ads via The Deck in the stream. I immediately bought a license and then didn’t activate that license because I enjoyed the ads from The Deck enough, and they weren’t intrusive and they were for products and services that, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate.

Yes, I appreciate not only the design and style of the ads, but the delivery was clever and clean and not only didn’t bother me, it added to my day and my work in subtle ways. And I spend a lot of money on products from The Deck.

When Twitterrific on iOS was released, same deal. I used it without restoring my purchase for months, right up until I needed to use a second account, and then that option went away. But I chose to see the ads, actively, for as long as I could.

Why? Because the products are relevant to me, and were presented in a way that didn’t disrupt my enjoyment of Twitter.

Again, the Iconfactory has already figured out what Twitter needs to do, and given them a map.

Everything about my usage of Twitter is available to Twitter. They can mine my access, my words, my times of day, everything. They have it all. And they can use that to create targeting for advertisers to tap into to deliver to me clean, crisp, concise, advertisements that show up in my stream and are easily digested and incorporated into my day. No disruption. No muss. No fuss.

And Twitter should be everywhere. The API should be re-opened so that third-party clients can do all the amazing new features (Quoted Tweets are the best!) directly, and Twitter should just design a simple way to create clean ads. Yes, they need links. Yes, they need images. Yes, they need to be awesome, but you can do that with a good team that says no to hideous and horrible and awful with a passion matched only by the users who will enjoy getting to see art in advertising again. Find a modern day Don Draper and make it happen.

Twitter should be everywhere. Everywhere. That should be the goal. On my phone. On my computer. On my watch. In my car. At my bar. Let me see everything that’s going on in the world in the cleanest, crispest way, using a tool that best matches my life. Some people want Tweetbot. Some want Twitterrific. Some want Tweetie back so bad they cry when they think of it. Let’s have them. Let’s access Twitter from whatever we choose, however we choose, because here’s the thing; Twitter has a choice to make: It can be a website that becomes part of history, or it can be integrated into our lives completely.

I look forward to the day that Twitter is back, integrated in my life in an awesome way.