Twitter Stumbles

Twitter has always been special to me.  In our industry, social networks and platforms come and go.  Some are innovative.  Some gain incredible traction.  Some not only make a mark, but persist.  Almost all are driven by a vision and a business plan.

But Twitter is different.  Twitter was an accident.  Born from Odeo, Twitter was originally built as an easy way to text groups of people.  It worked so well they grew it into a product, and then into a company.

The Fail Whale

The Fail Whale

If you look at Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, Path, Pinterest or other platforms, you can a cohesive, directed design.  Twitter grew up in a much more organic way.  @mentions, #tags, and other Twitter features were community driven.  The logo and branding are offshoots of visuals created by the Icon Factory.  Most of Twitter's UX innovation was driven by third party app developers, and even Twitter's official apps were purchased.  Even Twitter's search function was born out of a third party.

Twitter became a platform.  It's messaging model and API made it easy to use Twitter as glue between desktop, mobile and even SMS based platforms.  Twitter made great efforts to support and grow this community, and it helped Twitter grow into what it is now: one of The Great Platforms.  It may not have the reach of Facebook or YouTube, but who does?  What Twitter has is a community of connected, savvy followers.  It often acts as a place of refuge from the more dramatic Facebook.  It is a place where people who don't know each other, but share interests can connect and share.

But there's never been a business model.  Twitter has been a "let's just grow and figure out the money thing later" organization.  Facebook and Google are honest: we wan't your eyeballs to sell ads.  Dropbox or Valve want you to buy a product.  Twitter has never known.  The most I heard for years was "maybe we'll do ads one day."

This has created a tension for Twitter.  They now believe the way to revenue involved alienating some of the developers that helped them grow.  This is quite a gamble: Twitter's users may be uniquely sensitive to the plights of developers.  The distinction between influencer and developer is quite thin in the Twitterverse.

There is a lesson to learn here.  Business model decisions do not age well.  When you build a platform, there should be a clear path to revenue from day one.  Failure to make such plans means you may one day find your needs in opposition to those of your users.