Lost in Twitteration

What does a great daily paper by a smart thinker have to teach about good product management?

About a week ago, I came across Adrian Colyer‘s great “Morning Paper“. I have no idea how I missed this before. The “Morning Paper” takes a look at some trend, research or paper in technology and investigates its impact on technology development and, of course, by extension, business. The Paper is not for the faint of heart or those without pretty deep technical background, at least from the editions that I have seen.

Adrian is the former CTO of SpringSource, the maker of many excellent open-source libraries, toolkits, and products that enable enterprises to more easily (read: rapidly and cost-effectively) build applications, mostly on the Java platform. I used the original Spring MVC framework back in an earlier life, and it was a pleasure to discover Adrian’s writings. He has since moved on to becoming Executive-in-Residence at Accel, one of the pre-eminent venture capital firms, and writes his “Morning Paper” each day on the way to work.

Of course, I immediately followed @adriancolyer on Twitter so I could read the paper… and missed the next 2 days’ worth of papers in the Twitter overload. I receive so many tweets in my feed that the important ones get lost.

While the proximate solution is straightforward – I subscribed to the email distribution list via MailChimp, which manages the list for this blog as well – it raises the question of how to manage Twitter, or how Twitter should product-manage itself to maintain relevance.

I have written in the past on the different relationships users maintain in Twitter vs. Facebook vs. email, how they try (or not) to cage us in, and why we tolerate spam and overload more in one than the others.

Twitter would seem to be the ideal way to receive the “Morning Paper”. Tweets are chronological, they are short – so I don’t have to wade through images and recommendations and comments to get to the next item – and it does not (yet?) play algorithmic games with inserting posts that are less important, or removing or prioritizing. It feeds me everything people tweet, as they tweet it.

However, once you follow enough people, or enough active people, the important things are, with due respect to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, “Lost in Twitteration“.

At heart, though, the issue is that neither Twitter nor Facebook fully reflects our real relationships.

Facebook

Facebook has “friends” and “likes”. By contrast, the real world is more nuanced than that: we have family, very close friends, friends, old friends, business colleagues with whom we are friendly, professional colleagues, acquaintances, and probably a few I have missed. Facebook views it all as binary.

Google Plus tried to solve this problem by focusing on “Circles”, but appears to be failing to get sufficient traction, more likely for other reasons than its “friending” methodology.

Think of your mobile phone. You react differently depending on who is calling you: your boss or a client, your spouse, your kid, your parent, your best friend, or the neighbour with whom you exchange greetings once in a while. Your reaction also depends on when the person is calling: at a family dinner, in the office, in a meeting, during a wedding or a funeral, at religious services.

Facebook has no such context. You simply are a friend, or not a friend, period. What it does with that “like” or “friendship” is impure, as Facebook uses its own algorithms to try and get you to react in certain ways, but you have no granularity of control over the relationship.

Could Facebook solve it? Sure, it is technically doable. Can Facebook solve it? That depends on their history and incentives.

Twitter

Twitter is much truer to your explicitly stated preferences. When you follow someone, their tweet will fit into your feed pretty much in chronological order of the time it was tweeted. There is no reprioritization, hiding tweets or adding new tweets. Sure, they have a commercial platform which has “recommended (paid-for) tweets”, but they are clearly marked and do not actively disrupt your flow.

As we said, the problem with Twitter is overload. If you follow to enough active people, you easily can miss the tweets you really care about.

Looking back at my feed, I follow many people. Some are business, some are political, some are economic, some are humourous, some are technical. Some of these people are very active and constantly tweeting; others are fairly quiet, like me, and tweet several times per day. Some of these people are more important to me, I would not want to miss any tweets; others are less so, as long as I catch some of their tweets, I am content.

As in Facebook, I need a method of prioritization. I need to be able to say a person is really important to me, make sure I always see his or her tweets.

Two people I now follow give a perfect example. One is highly active, with around 100 tweets in the last 24 hours, covering everything from business to technology to humour to human interest; the second is very focused, with exactly 6 tweets in the last 24 hours, all of them laser-focused on the business of technology (yes, that is @adriancolyer).

In a better world, I would mark Adrian as “!important” (css) or “favourite” and so ensure his 6 tweets would not get lost.

Summary

The basic Twitter model risks creating “feed fatigue” and thus becoming less relevant to consumers.

Right now, Twitter is on top of the world, but that could easily change. Facebook could change their algorithms or models – with great pain, as the public model of Twitter is diametrically opposed to Facebook’s – or another startup could jump in. Technology companies shift very quickly, and the consumer is fickle indeed.

The product management lesson is twofold:

  1. Always keep a close eye on how your users use your products, and ensure that what you offer fits with how they want to work.
  2. Yesterday’s innovation is today’s old news; never assume that what worked yesterday for your customers meets their needs today.

When you really want to know how on top of your product-usage fit you are, ask us for help.

About Avi Deitcher

Avi Deitcher is a technology business consultant who lives to dramatically improve fast-moving and fast-growing companies. He writes regularly on this blog, and can be reached via Facebook, Twitter and avi@atomicinc.com.
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