Twitter’s Small Chance To Maim Email

There was a time, years ago, when Twitter almost killed their direct messaging product. The thought process seemed to be that it was an odd bit of cruft around an otherwise elegant, simple product. It was also undoubtedly hard to maintain and scale alongside Twitter’s other scaling issues of yesteryear. Or, at least, to justify the resources to do so.

That would have been a huge mistake. And I think we’re about to see why.

Twitter is now gearing up to double down on its DM product. This is not a secret. No less than Dick Costolo is openly talking about it during earnings calls. And I cannot wait.

A few weeks ago, I tweeted about a simple option I would love as a part of DMs: the ability to easily talk shit about tweets with friends. I do this already on a daily basis, I simply do it on other messaging services. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be done on Twitter.

And in a better way. Rather than having to click on an external URL to a tweet, the Twitter DM client could embed the tweet right into the message stream for all to see. And it would presumably be easier to pull the tweet from the public stream into a chat. This should work exactly the way the new Pinterest messaging system works (except with groups too, ideally).

But the more I think about the new Twitter DM product, the more I’m excited about something else: its potential at reducing my email influx.

Everyone already knows that I hate email more than anything on this Earth. It’s the worst thing ever for about a billion reasons. But one huge reason is that anyone can email you at any time. Sure, they have to know your address. But people share those addresses freely, CC you on emails with others, there are spam lists, etc. It’s a problem that gets worse with each passing day.

The one thing Twitter has always gotten right with DMs is the connection model. Because the main feeds of Twitter are public (unless you protect your account, of course), and anyone can follow anyone, Twitter DM has always offered an alternative way to use the product on the side.

As the name implies, it was clearly meant for direct, one-to-one communication away from the public eye. But the more powerful aspect is the fact that you cannot receive a message from someone unless you’re following them (yes, I know they’ve been experimenting with removing this limitation, more on this in a second).

Basically, by following someone on Twitter, you’re opting in to the ability to receive DMs from them. Imagine this in the context of email. No one can send you a message unless you say they can. How refreshing!

Actually, I’m underselling it. Game. Changer.

But wait, that won’t work, right? How will you ever meet or connect with someone new? Well, Twitter could take a page from something Facebook has failed at.

In Facebook’s messaging product, they have the main messages feed and an “Other” feed for messages from people you aren’t connected with. But because even those you aren’t connected with still can message you in the main feed, this Other feed is basically useless and is almost all spam. But it doesn’t have to be.

With a Twitter DM product, I imagine a feed of the people I follow who are pre-approved to message me (as well as groups of those people). There could also be an “Other” feed of those trying to DM me, but Twitter could use its social algorithms to know if this is likely a DM I want to see.

This would be similar to the recommendations they serve up already for people to follow. These are usually quite good. But maybe I just don’t want to follow any more people and have their content clutter my main Twitter stream. And that’s fine, as long as Twitter is good enough with these social smarts, they could still allow you to connect with the right people regardless of whether you follow one another or not.

Another way to think about this: regardless of what you do for a living, the best introductions you get to other people are “warm” introductions. That is, someone you know is recommending to you that you connect with this other person they know. Using their social data, Twitter could do this automatically for the DM service.

And actually, Twitter recently implemented something similar in its Vine product. If you open the Messages area now you’ll see a “Friends” tab and an “Other” tab. (As an aside, Vine messages is actually quite well done and makes me even more optimistic about Twitter finally taking direct messaging seriously.)

I’m sure this solution wouldn’t be perfect. But if you could cut out 99% of the bogus messages you get completely unsolicited in email, that would be a huge, huge, huge breakthrough.

Yes, you’d still need email for attachments blah blah blah. But we all still get a good amount of email that I would best categorize as “social.” Twitter DMs already seem so much better for these types of interactions. And we all know why: because we’ve opt-ed in to seeing only messages from those we choose to follow.

But wait, Twitter DMs are only 140 characters, that will never work! In the context of email, that would very much be a feature not a bug.