There is growing evidence and speculation that Twitter is about to fundamentally change the core experience for users – embedded images, video, blog posts becoming the norm (as opposed to the primarily text-only experience at the moment – with links to such things that you can expand on choice) – and (more significantly) to a filtered/trend based main feed (ala Facebook). They’ve also being consistently reigning in access to their API over the past year or so, further implying they want full control of the Twitter experience – so they can fundamentally alter it.
Last week I de-activated my Facebook account. The reasons for this were many (which I may come back to in another post) but one of the things which finally did it for me was this feeling that I was less and less in control of what I saw. It’s now widely known that a users main feed is algorithmically filtered by Facebook. This has always bugged me – I would be fine with it if I also had the option of a fire-hose unfiltered feed, but they don’t offer that. But what compounded it was their introduction of a system whereby pages/brands could pay more to have their posts reach a wider audience. From Facebook’s point of view this makes sense – so much content flows through it, and many people frequently log in but for short periods – they wanted a way to keep content out there for longer – and to make more money off of advertisers. As a user however this is a fundamental shift in the experience. When I logged in recently I felt less like I was engaging in a social network, rather than staring at a TV playing ads. (Users were also culpable for this with more and more ‘share this to win an iPad shenanigans and some kind of ‘offer claiming’ system)
It’s a cliché now – but yes – on Facebook you are not the customer you are the product. Someone has to pay to keep the servers running. But whereas Google (leaving aside any ‘selling on’ of information/tracking etc.) make this a relatively painless experience – they deliver ads on the periphery of the main experience – or clearly mark sponsored search results – I never felt (some what naively maybe) that the core experience of their products was being compromised. My emails still are mine, the search results are still there. But with Facebook the main objective – of socialising – is being manipulated for advertising revenue. Sure, Google are storing tonnes of data about me and using it to direct advertising at me – that’s another problem for another day – but from an experiential point of view they are doing it in an unobtrusive manner. Google+ does by default include trending topics in my feed, but it’s a relatively easy matter to remove them completely (if I wish)
Now it seems the same is about to happen with Twitter. Talk is of the ‘Discover’ tab – which shows you trending content etc – is to become the core primary feed for users. This is fine if I can still have my plain old unfiltered feed. But if that goes (and Dave Winer has also suggested – how do we know it hasn’t already?) then for me Twitter would, like Facebook, be completely compromised as a network.
In thinking about all this, I’ve started to formulate some basic principles for a social network I would like to see.
1. Access to an unfiltered feed. Fine, have your advertiser biased trend-based feed, but let me also just see MY feeds.
2. User-Filters. Let us control what we see, when.
3. Embedded media. I’m fine with images, previews of links being embedded. Google+ does this quite well (just a pity no one is on it) – Tumblr too. But let me collapse/expand them at will.
4. Equal playing field. Don’t give extra features (such as more words) to people who pay. That tips the network in favour of the big players and is the road to ruin.
5. Unobtrusive advertising. I accept someone has to pay to keep the lights on – but work out how to do it in a way that (a) doesn’t feel like I am staring at a rotating billboard or (b) doesn’t take over my feed in a manipulative way.
As soon as the ability to ‘pay’ to influence the core experience (as opposed to advertising in and around the core experience) is given I think a social network’s worth has to be questioned seriously by users.
The solution may well be to pony up and pay for such an experience, like app.net. But I fear app.net is an echo chamber of smug early adopters.