Twitter as a blank canvas

Pretty much everyone has the same common experience when they first use Twitter:  bafflement. You go, you sign up, you load the account and... what? 

Of course, as we know from Nick Bilton's account of the early days of Twitter, this was pretty much how the people making it felt. They knew there was something here - probably - but what? Everyone had a different vision and the company twisted and turned for years (indeed, perhaps if it had been better managed it might not have worked).

As it turned out, the blank screen was really a blank canvas. You make your own Twitter. You can build a feed (and follower set) around fashion and makeup, or politics and journalism, or mobile tech (as I have). It's your mirror. 

This means that that blank screen is perhaps better thought of as an empty development environment - Hypercard, perhaps, or (a metaphor that comes easier to me) an empty spreadsheet.  

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It can be lots of different things, but it's nothing until you start building.

This free-form character is quite different from other social networks. Very broadly, these divide into two categories: networks of people you know personally and networks of people interested in the same thing: Facebook or Yelp. Twitter is neither of these. 

This leads to rather different dynamics for a new user - the 'on-boarding experience'. If you log into Facebook for the first time you don't have to create anything - your friends are already there. You just have to add them. Even more, on mobile social platforms such Whatsapp even this barrier isn't there: the app uses the phone address book to add people automatically, the photo library is shared, push notifications let you know when there's new stuff, and so all of the friction of a desktop social network falls away. The experience comes to you.

Equally, on a network of strangers such as Yelp, there's already lots of content from those strangers (restaurants, hotels or whatever), so again, there's no intimidating blank canvas. 

On Twitter, though, you do need actually to go out and build something. Hence the stories about abandonment rates: people hear about it, create an account, write a few baffled tweets and get no further. What am I supposed to do with this? 


However, once you're over that hump, Twitter might be much stickier than conventional social networks for actual friends (the Yelp model is rather different). There's not much to keep you on Whatsapp over Kik beyond the nightclub effect - that's where your friends are. But once you've build up a twitter feed around your interests, and a global network of people you've never actually met that you talk to, that's hard to replicate elsewhere.

This varies by use case, of course - if you only follow companies and celebrities that's easier to replicate elsewhere than if you've hunted out interesting and low-profile tech execs or makeup artists or experimental musicians, and of course are followed by the same. 

One of the key challenges for Twitter to carry on growing, and become a truly mass-market platform, is to create things that help people over this hump - which also means mitigating an essential characteristic of the product. The contradiction is that the more that Twitter solves the on-boarding problem, the less sticky it may be. The less manual it is, the easier it is to make something similar. 

Filters for twitter

The interesting superset of this 'freeform' question, to me, is what else can be done with all of this data. You made the spreadsheet, so to speak, and 200m people filled it up, and now what do you do? There are two things that occur to me. 

First, there's the concept behind Twitter Music, which appears to have failed to gain traction but I think remains valuable. A app that acts as a filter to Twitter, pulling in all of a certain type of content, with structured data and content-specific tools. Music was one idea but any structured content might apply. The underlying problem, perhaps, is that before the death of RSS I was pretty sure that I was following 90% of the blogs that I would be interested in - but I'm equally sure I'm only following 10% at most of the people I would be interested in on Twitter. How can you manage the flow? I can't read everything, but a transient feed of tweets from people I find by hand (or even with a recommendation engine) is only one solution. Music? Video? What other forms can be systematised in this way? (There are already third parties trying to do 'buzz analytics'.)

The second is the contrast with LinkedIn. It seems to me that LinkedIn has (obviously) very rich data about each individual, but very poor data about the links between them. I'm connected to that person, yes, but do I really know them? If I want an introduction, does the intermediate contact know either me or the person I want an intro to, or is it a weak-weak connection? Products like Endorsements and Intro are clearly attempts to change this by gathering better, non-binary data about relationships between individuals, but it's not clear how well they'll work. 

Conversely, Twitter has very strong data about connections between people, but very weak information about who they are. My Twitter bio is fairly informative, but many aren't, and all lack the richness of a LinkedIn profile.  In fact, the only really properly structured data in  Twitter is the character of relationships. 

Hence, LinkedIn can tell me if X works at Yco and what they do there, and that someone I vaguely know has an indeterminate connection to them. Twitter knows that I'm followed by X, and he clicks all my links and retweets half what I say - but there's no way for me to see that and Twitter doesn't necessarily know he's at Yco at all. How to solve that? 


Dead social networks and the value of history

This Google Trends chart provides a neat shorthand illustration of the rise and fall of five different social networks. All of these had strong lock-in effects. All of them thought that there were barriers to switching away. All thought that people would not want to abandon their history of photos, interactions, tags. But when it came to it, people just walked away from all of that accumulated history and adopted a new platform. 

 I've been wondering how broadly applicable this message is. How much value do ordinary people place on their email history, for example? At least half of the subscribers to my newsletter are using Gmail, and in the tech world we tend to think of such things as extremely sticky. But real people walk away from services that they're supposedly locked into with disconcerting ease. And when a corporate person (as opposed to a VC or entrepreneur) leaves a job they leave their email behind too. When I left NBC Universal at the end of 2008, I left behind my Exchange mailboxes, including, say, my 'Launching Hulu in Europe' folder. I can't really say that I need it now. It has a certain historical interest but no professional value. 

Meanwhile a lot of my professional interactions are on Twitter, which are ephemeral and unsearchable even after a day or two. (There's a start-up idea in here, somewhere.) 

I wrote a post on the unbundling of services recently in which I suggested that a key issue for Facebook is that the smartphone phone book and photo library are resources that any app can tap into, where a competing desktop social site had to recreate them from scratch. This, obviously, makes it easier for smartphone apps to unbundle segments of the Facebook experience - text messaging, photo sharing, games etc. It also enables new experiences, such as Snapchat. All these apps sit on top of these smartphone resources in the same way that Facebook apps sat on top of Facebook. And most people use more than one and many use three or four in parallel, both with different people and the same person. 

So the underlying relationship has far more value than any record of the messages exchanged. People switch between apps and dump them and their archives on a whim, or even in a deliberate detox (it seems to me this is part of the point of Path - it's Facebook, but with only your real friends). The value is in the contact list on the smartphone - the social services and the conversations and things shared themselves are ephemeral.  

LinkedIn has a similar issue. Once you've accumulated a few hundred LinkedIn connections, every time you look at the news feed you see people you have no recollection of ever meeting. They're people you met, once or twice, a few years ago, and it seemed worth connecting to them, but now they're just names. That is, many LinkedIn connections are like the business cards you find in a drawer and struggle to place. You file them away safely for another year or two, and then, the next time you find them, you shrug and throw them away, not because the information is out of date but because the relationship that's referenced is long gone. How many LinkedIn 'connections' are equally worthless? Rather like the tags and shared photos on Facebook, you care about them at a moment in time, and then, when you really think about it, you're happy to abandon them. Maybe, like Path and Facebook, there should be a LinkedIn clone that's just for the people you actually know. 

Snapchat is the purest expression of this view. Any interaction, whether professional or purely social, is a conversation that fades over time if it isn't continued. After a certain point the archive of that interaction has no value (except perhaps to your company's lawyers). And the division is between the relationship itself versus the many different media though which you might contact a conversation - phone calls, SMS, coffee, Instagram, beer, twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook. And both the relationship and the messages have half-lives. An app that reminds you that you met this person has strictly limited value - if you can't remember them, are they really in your network?

Lots of companies have big user bases and big accumulations of user data. And they think that this gives them a lock-in. But maybe the only stickiness comes from the mere presence of users - more like a nightclub than a bank. If your friends move, you'll move in a second, and the dynamics of smartphones mean there are no barriers at all to moving. Owning the address book, and perhaps the photos, are the only real levers of control, and it's very hard to dislodge the underlying platform owners from that. 

That of course begs the question - what is the irreducible, underlying, unchanging point of identity? Is there one? An email address? A PSTN number? A Facebook/twitter account? Or is it ultimately a personal, real-world connection?

Unbundling: AOL, Facebook and LinkedIn

One of the recurring themes of the consumer internet is the cycle from aggregation to disaggregation - bundling to unbundling. There is a lot of value in services that pull everything together in one place, but over time that value starts to recede, the lock-ins keeping people there weaken and the appeal of having separate, specialised products grows. And then, after a while, the appeal of aggregation starts to grow again. We saw this in the past with AOL, and now with Facebook on mobile.

A big part of the dynamic of Facebook unbundling is the different mechanics of apps versus the desktop web. Any smartphone app can use the phone book and PSTN numbering system to access a ready-made social graph, removing a lot of the friction Facebook benefits from on the web. A core Facebook use case is photo sharing, and a smartphone's built-in photo library offers much more fluid ways to share photos across multiple services. In effect, the phone book and photo library are reservoirs that any app can tap into, where on the desktop, creating that resource is a major pain and a major moat for Facebook. Meanwhile, push notifications to apps mean you don't have to check different web sites for updates.  And it seems that pressing 'Home' and jumping to another app to share something else in another way with someone else is much easier than loading a different web page. 

We can also see this unbundling happening to Craigslist, or at least that’s what many people hope. Once a charming reminder of the web’s uncommercial roots, Craigslist is now, to many, a fat complacent monopolist with a nasty litigious streak, whose founder claims no responsibility for the company he owns. It appears to have taken over the newspapers’ business while taking on all of their attitudes. There are a swarm of services, often mobile first or mobile only, trying to peel off parts of the Craigslist offer, or do things Craigslist should have been doing. AirBnB is only the most obvious. Chris Dixon has a good note about this here, and Andrew Parker produced this great graphic back in 2010. 


LinkedIn is another interesting example of a product waiting to be unbundled, and it looks especially vulnerable because of the consistently poor execution of so many core features.  

To give just one example of this, a few weeks ago an old colleague of mine took an important new job at Microsoft. I found out because he posted a photo of his badge to Facebook and I saw it, by chance, on my fortnightly visit. But when I went to LinkedIn I saw this, filling the top half of my news feed.

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I spent 10 minutes searching without seeing his new job listed anywhere other than his profile itself, and indeed I couldn't actually find a way for LinkedIn to tell me about it - there is no view of 'job changes in my network', though that would seem like something that would have been implemented at launch. However, it's eager to tell me Deepak Chopra’s ten tips for how successful people wipe their arses. 

To re-iterate the point - LinkedIn has my entire career history. It knows I've spent 14 years in mobile, tech and finance. And this is the news it recommends me. 

Of course, the amount of effort going into a mediocre Huffpo clone wouldn’t matter if the core functionality of the site worked, but it doesn’t. There’s no way to see which of your contacts have changed jobs. No way to post a message to your network that your boss won’t see. The entire user experience is a mess of overlapping technologies, black UX aimed at upselling paid services and outright poor work. Pretty much any basic task to do with managing or engaging with your network is harder and more painful than it should be. It's even hard for LinkedIn, it seems: it knows I don't have an MBA (I TOLD THEM!) but recommends I join an MBA alumni group because I did my BA at the same university. 

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But how does LinkedIn get unbundled? What's the mechanic? The dynamics of smartphones discussed above make it easier to unbundle Facebook. Craigslist's main strength is volume of traffic, and if you can gain an edge in a particular segment you can overcome that. But neither of those dynamics quite apply to LinkedIn. 

The core of LinkedIn is that it's the universal CV database. You need to have your CV there for people to find it, to look you up - in some circles not  being on LinkedIn is almost a professional failing. For specific verticals (programming, design) this isn't the case, but for white collar professionals it is. For some people an online presence per se (your blog, twitter etc) is a de facto CV and is how you build your reputation (and Klout is poking away at this), but most careers are not built in public, and most people cannot blog about their job, even if they had the time and inclination. 

So it seems to me that the low-hanging fruit is the stuff that LinkedIn just isn't doing while it pursues the Huffpo dream. Connection and meeting management (Evernote Hello). Introductions ( Pre-meeting stalking (Refresh). Bit by bit a graphic just like the one for Craigslist gets built up. 

The puzzle is at what point that matters to LinkedIn. The core business is about selling CVs to recruiters. So long as it remains the CV registrar, does it matter if the users only visit the site once a month, or once every six months? Indeed, if all of these apps use LinkedIn as a data source, arguably they actually reinforce its position. 

Perhaps the answer is that tech history is full of dead companies that had mediocre product but great lock-ins. Eventually, the lock-in always goes away - we have Blackberry this week to remind us of that. LinkedIn has a great lock-in and product that's mediocre for the users who enter their CVs, but pretty good for the recruiters who pay the bills. How will that play out?


LinkedIn annoys me.

It proliferates news aggregation features, and new apps, and all sorts of services. It recently bought an iPad news aggregator, you can use it as a publishing platform and it's spewing out money by selling CVs to recruiters. Reid Hoffman is a genius. 

But consider some of the things you can't do on LinkedIn. 

  • You cannot make a status update that your boss will not see. Want to tell your network you want a job, or you're having problems at work? You can't. 
  • Maybe that's too hard. How about seeing a list of which of your contacts have changed jobs in the last six months and might need your help? Nope. There's no way to do that. 

So, this is a social network for your professional connections, and there's no way to talk to your network with a degree of control and there's no way to see what they're doing.   

Then there's a job recommendation system. This is one role LinkedIn offered me recently.  


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LinkedIn KNOWS I graduated in 1998. I TOLD THEM. They have perfectly structured data, and they use it to offer a graduate job. Sadly, I didn't take a screenshot of the suggestion I apply to work as a SAP consultant in Germany, though I don't speak German or have the word 'SAP' on my profile. 

On mobile it's even worse. LinkedIn recently relaunched a completely redesigned iPhone app. It got a lot of attention for moving from hybrid HTML5 to native code, which is much faster. Here are some of the things the much faster native code can't do: 

  • Look up a contact's email address
  • Dial a phone number, reliably (if the phone number in the mobile app lacks a country code it won't dial properly: copying is disabled, so it cannot be edited)
  • Delete contacts
  • Reply to connection requests without accepting
  • Edit some of the unwanted news aggregation categories you're automatically subscribed to (and these categories are different from the ones you're forced to subscribe to on the desktop. Why?) 

LinkedIn fails to hit absolutely basic product features that should have been in there 5 years ago, both on mobile and desktop. Instead, the core features get buried under successive layers of mediocre non-core products, the latest being a flood of me-too news aggregation that's creeping through the product like ivy, and none of which can be properly configured, let alone turned off.  

This is now so bad that the company has announced a 'Contacts' app for iPhone - which as far as I can see is simply LinkedIn without all the useless junk that's been piled on top. What would we say if Google announced a new 'Search' app, or Facebook a new 'share stuff with your friends' app? Contacts is what LinkedIn IS - it shouldn't be a side-project.

It appears that LinkedIn's back-end was a horrible mess and has had to be completely rebuilt in the last couple of years. This is an excuse of sorts for the chaos that is the interaction design on the website, with half a dozen different navigation schemes and bizarre archaic time-warps, like a Groups system that looks like a message board from 2002. The new 'Contacts' is perhaps one of the fruits of that rebuilding. But that doesn't explain why the new 'LinkedIn' mobile app is such a mess.  Nor does it explain why this new service is being launched on a wait-list basis starting in the USA. Waiting lists are cute PR for lightly-capitalised startups. LinkedIn has had ten years to buy servers. 

Now, I entirely understand that the LinkedIn business model is to sell my CV to recruiters, not give me useful tools to manage my network. I also understand that all the mediocre me-too news-aggregation is a way to try to get me to spend more time on the site, rather than visiting every month or two.  But really, it needs to get the basics right. It needs to give me useful tools. Right now it's a not-very-good CV database with an interface that would be second-rate a decade ago, that I have no reason to stick with if something remotely, you know, useful  came along. 

So, Reid Hoffman is a genius, with a great vision. I just wish he'd join LinkedIn, and implement some of it.