Twitter’s Huge Mistake

The worst tech news I read last week was: “Twitter CFO says a Facebook-style filtered feed is coming, whether you like it or not.” The horrified firestorm of condemnation that erupted in response was the first time I’ve ever seen anything like unanimity on my Twitter feed. Fortunately, it seems it’s not actually happening. (At least not any time soon.)

But for all the entirely justified denunciation of that terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea–

— there is one place where Twitter really could use some algorithmic cavalry to ride to the rescue.

I mean the much-maligned Discover tab, the ugly-duckling stepson of the Twitter interface, which, so far as I can tell, no serious Twitter user has ever navigated to except by mistake. I mean, I could be wrong, only Twitter knows for sure; maybe half of its audience is glued to Discover like it invented sliced bread and emoji, and they can’t wait to see what comes next; but I kind of doubt it. To date Discover has seemed a mismanaged mistake.

I don’t mean to be harsh. I’m a huge fan of Twitter. Hell, I wrote a paean to its genius last year. But over the last year it seems like its managers keep casting envious looks down the Valley towards Facebook’s jaw-dropping user-engagement numbers and mobile-ad revenue, like 97-pound weaklings gazing up with hero-worship at the beach bully kicking sand in their face.

But the more Twitter tries to be like Facebook, the less relevant they become, and the more they risk trading short-term gain for long-term irrelevance. Nobody needs Facebook Two.

I’m prepared to believe that Twitter could do something interesting with algorithmic filtering and prioritization, as long as they don’t use them to butcher our primary feeds. But that’s what Discover is meant to be for, and it’s a total mess. I fat-finger my way there from time to time, and I have never found a single item of interest there. There’s no Discover tab on Facebook. What would it even do? Twitter’s feels like a weird waste of real estate, an unwanted pet, a player to be named later…

…which is exactly what makes it interesting. It’s a forgotten zone, a blank area on a map, an option overlooked by literally hundreds of millions of people a day. Surely there’s some potential to do something innovative there. Something possibly awesome. Something–whisper it–totally unlike what Facebook does.

(Yes, yes, it was originally Facebook who copied Twitter’s feed, lo these many years ago. That was then, this is now, let us not dwell on the barren glories of the past.)

Suppose they actually did crack it; suppose they found a way to surface, say, a Best Of of tweets you missed from the feeds you follow, and compelling highlights from those you don’t but should. I believe the assembled Twitter masses would be far more accepting of a very occasional entry in their main feed highlighting something of particular interest in Discover, which would shuttle them over there if tapped, than with hijacking and filtering their main feed. I think they might even welcome the chance to rediscover Discover–if there was anything worthwhile there.

Discover could be to Twitter what Twitter is to Facebook: weird; quirky; an acquired taste; kind of hard to get right, at first; but absolutely addictive when you do. Right now it’s little more than a waste of space. But when you measure your audience in the hundreds of millions, any such worm has the potential to transform into an extremely valuable butterfly–

–as long as you give your users what they want, not what you want them to want.