In an essay about Twitter written in 2014, Ben Thompson described why he believed in the service:
“I think this actually gets to the problem with Twitter: the initial concept was so good, and so perfectly fit such a large market, that they never needed to go through the process of achieving product market fit. It just happened, and they’ve been riding that match for going on eight years.”
I’ve always thought the same thing. That Twitter started out so good, with such strong core features, that those basic features have carried it through all the years of missteps and inaction. But it’s not just that the features are “good” (although they are); it’s that they are unique.
Listening to the Connected podcast the other day, Federico Viticci and Myke Hurley made the statement that only nerds care about Twitter changing stars to hearts, favorites to likes. I was nodding in agreement until I talked to my daughter. She also didn’t understand why they would change away from stars, and she’s been on Twitter less than a year.
It’s not just nerds. Many new Twitter users recognize the subtle difference implied with hearts. But I realized that there’s something even more important about what this change says. Why is my daughter even on Twitter, in addition to Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Vine? Because — even if most people can’t pin down exactly what makes it special — everyone knows Twitter is different and interesting.
All Twitter has going for it is its uniqueness. The timeline user experience, the retweets and favorites, the hashtag, and the short 140 character posts. Changing any of those key strengths to be just like every other social network means they’re watering down their own potential impact. Eventually that approach will produce a bland product that has no unique qualities.
We’ve already seen the timeline experience significantly altered. Promoted tweets, “while you were away”, inline conversation threads, and Twitter cards. Twitter in 2015 looks a lot more like Facebook than it did a few years ago, to everyone not using third-party Twitter apps.
Growing the user base is fine. But making Twitter more accessible to new users won’t do any good if you lose the much larger base of passionate users who have loved the product for years because it’s unique. You’re not going to beat Facebook by becoming even more like Facebook. If that’s Twitter’s strategy, then the service is already in decline.