Twitter's New Profile Page: Long Term #Fail?

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 9 April 2014 |

With the rollout of a big facelift commencing yesterday, Twitter has again created a talking point. Twitter’s new, adaptive profile page looks set to put a smile on the faces of many existing users. But will it be enough to save the site from a decline in new uptake, which has been worsening for some time, and reached critical status towards the end of 2013?


The final incarnation of the 'classic' Twitter profile page - soon to disappear.

WHY THE REDESIGN?

It’s surely become pretty obvious to Twitter in the course of the past year that it has to do something pretty drastic if it wants future growth. Twitter’s growth has not just slowed down in recent months – some are arguing that it’s nearly stopped. Particularly in America, comparatively few new users have been signing up, and budgeting for the fact that a lot of new signups are actually existing users creating alternative accounts, ACTUAL new adoption may have reached virtual stagnation. New interest has been heading in the direction of other services, and Twitter must now consider that if it doesn’t act, it could end up getting trampled by rivals. Twitter is not about to die, but a perception that it’s losing traction could start sending advertising business elsewhere, and lose the site a heck of a lot of money.

MISSING THE PROBLEM?

But if the profile page revamp is really Twitter’s answer to waning interest, I think the organisation has misunderstood the problem. Okay, so a new, more customisable profile page and design is obviously going to create an immediate term buzz. But in the longer term, novelty interest runs out of gas and the site is left looking for another talking point.

To turn round the increase in public apathy, Twitter needs to attack the root of the fundamental problem. And the fundamental problem is not the layout; it’s the motivation to tweet – or at least, the lack of it.

If you look at the intensity of use among existing Twitter users, you’ll see a glaring trait. Users who have high numbers of followers and feel people are listening to them will tweet a lot, and spend much of their time logged in. But if you use a utility like ManageFlitter to isolate users with small numbers of followers, you instantly notice how much less intensive their use of the service is. Whereas those with high numbers of engaged followers are often tweeting numerous times a day, it’s much more common for people with very small followings to go weeks or even months between tweets.

How often the light tweeters are actually logging in it’s impossible to say. Some people are observers rather than talkers, so a lack of tweets doesn’t necessarily mean they’re never on the site. But if they have tweeted, and particularly if they’ve tweeted fairly regularly, then scaled down their messaging to an inconsequence, it’s fair to assume that they were there to talk, but over time they realised there wasn’t much point. This is a very common pattern among users with small followings. They talk, they perceive no one cares, and they shut up. And if you take things a step further and look at completely inactive accounts, guess what you find… Yep, an incredibly high incidence of users with small or disengaged followings. The reason many people are not tweeting is not that they think their profile page looks a bit plain. It’s because they perceive that no one’s listening. None of what Twitter has done in the redesign addresses that.

So what Twitter needs is not a layout revamp. What it needs is to stop users from feeling like failures, or from feeling like they’ve missed the boat and are too late to gain a real footing, or from feeling like they’ve arrived in an environment where everyone’s shouting at them, but no one’s actually listening.

ANTI-SPAM

The first priority for Twitter should be to implement much tougher measures on spam. Twitter is far too tolerant of bots, and this has allowed users to automate their ‘communication’ to an excruciating and frankly ridiculous level. Anything from accounts that tweet stolen content or links virtually once a minute, round the clock, to the scourge of automated Direct Messages, which do nothing more than mass mail other users with unwanted spam – it’s easy for Twitter to spot, and it’s easy for Twitter to stem.

Yes, people can unfollow accounts that perpetrate spam, but automation is now so endemic on Twitter that a lot of users are asking: “If I’m not prepared to suffer any automated messaging at all, who can I actually follow?” Spam is out of control on Twitter, and it’s not only annoying – it makes finding the interesting stuff near impossible. Things should never have been allowed to get like this. The control spammers have gained over the site has effectively shut out those with something of value to contribute. If a new user tweets something good once a day, and another user bots out a spam tweet once a minute, you’re over 1,400 times more likely to find the spam. What sort of impression does that create for a new user? Not only are they repetitively seeing the spam – they’re also being made invisible by it.

Twitter needs to take its own guidance on automated use seriously, and do something about it.

ENGAGEMENT TOOLS

The next priority should be to introduce some native tools or facilities which will help users proactively gain and keep engaged followers. Most people don’t just want to listen. They want to be listened to. But there’s nothing Twitter itself provides to help users find people who are going to follow them, and listen to them. That’s currently left to third party sites, and they don’t do it very well. Twitter can obviously see what people’s interests are, because it can be uncannily accurate with its follow suggestions. But the follow suggestions are so often people who have popular accounts and won’t follow back. Accounts that talk but don’t listen. These follow suggestions give new users something to read, but neglect to provide them with an impetus to talk.

It would make sense for Twitter to suggest not just accounts in which it feels you’ll be interested, but also accounts it feels might be interested in you. It could perhaps give followback, drop, tweets-per-day and interactivity ratios for suggested accounts to help users determine how likely a follow is to be a two-way thing. With 0% on interactivity, ridiculously high tweets-per-day and astronomical drop rates from repetitive churn, bots would be very easy to identify, and would, I suspect, start to die a deserved death. Twitter is meant to be social, but the cold reality of everyone shouting and no one listening is actually ANTISOCIAL for a new user – particularly in 2014, when so many people use advanced power techniques and tools. Twitter needs to face the fact that millions are abusing the system, and instead of trying to pretend it’s not happening, actually give well-behaved users a means to fight back against it.

In providing meaningful information regarding followback and chat potential, Twitter would also render useless a lot of the third party sites that encourage churn and meaningless following. If a user knew he or she was going to get a damaging rep score on Twitter for heavy churn, the stupid charade of following a few hundred random people, waiting a day, and then unfollowing everyone who hasn’t followed back would quickly start to diminish.

BUT WOULD THIS NOT DRIVE MILLIONS AWAY?

When you take measures against abuse, what happens is that you change people’s behaviour – not drive people away. If you allow people to steal from supermarkets without consequence, millions will steal from supermarkets. But if you have measures in place to stop people stealing from supermarkets, they don’t stop using supermarkets. They just use them legitimately and pay for the goods. The same principle applies with Twitter.

If someone’s amassed 150,000 followers on Twitter and uses a bot to spam them 500 times a day, will the abuser close that account and go elsewhere if you suddenly ban them from botting? Of course not. What they’ll do is say: “Okay, I’ve got an incredible means to reach a very large number of people: how am I going to make something of this opportunity without using automation?” Then they’ll start using the site legitimately, or at least more legitimately than they were doing before. The only abusers who would completely leave Twitter and go elsewhere if the site was to clamp down on automation, would be individuals who are so worthless to the site, and whose abuse is so bad, that social media is much better off without them. The vast majority of abusers on Twitter would reform, because Twitter is too valuable to them for them not to.

CONCLUSION

I find it hard to believe that Twitter could sit down to consider its plight, and conclude in all seriousness that the reason it's not rivalling Facebook is that Facebook has a more attractive profile page. The novelty of this redesign will soon wear off, and what happens then? At some point, Twitter has to think hard about why people are starting to look at the site and think: "Er... nah". Then it needs to use its enormous profile and power to drive through a set of much more daring and revolutionary measures which will actively discourage spam and reward real communication and interactivity. Twitter is dangerously close to failing its MOT, and a mere coat of paint is not going to make it roadworthy.

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