The Great White Fail Whale

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having nothing particular to interest me in meatspace, I thought to visit the Vale of Silicon. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen. Whenever my meds get such an upper hand of me, that I yearn to troll passersby–then, I account it high time to get to cyberspace.

Soon I found myself in the insular City of Saint Francis, belted round by wharves, beaches, and anti-housing NIMBYs. Circumambulating the city one dreamy Sabbath afternoon, passing thousands of mortal men and women fixed in entrepreneurial reveries–tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks–does the magnetic virtue of their stock options attract them thither?–I happened to encounter one Queequeg, a native of Rokovoko, an island far away. (It is not down in any map; true places never are.) ‘Twas he who told me of Project Pequod, as it was then known.

Curiously, Pequod was ruled by a triumvirate; Captain Stone, Captain Williams, and, most memorably, Captain Ahab “Jack” Dorsey. They offered Queequeg and myself positions as sailor-developers, for a voyage of unknown duration, into treacherous, uncharted waters. Immediately we accepted. Weeks later, after a frenzy of coding, rigging, and seasickness, Project Pequod — renamed at the last to the allegedly catchier Twitter — launched on its maiden / “alpha” voyage.

I will not dwell overlong on the alarums and excursions of our subsequent seafaring; the rise and fall of Captain Costolo; Queequeeg’s fate.1 You know these tales already. Now Captain Ahab is returned, and, having keelhauled the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth mates, he drives us newly into storm-tossed waves, in arctic climes, so that every developer-sailor among us (to say nothing of our financiers in Nantucket) has begun to fear for their career, their sacred honor, and worst of all, the strike price of their stock options.

Yesterday I encountered Captain Ahab as he waited for his skiff to carry him away. (Incredibly, he remains captain of another flagship, in another ocean; Starbuck “Adam” Bain stands watch for us while he is away.) Into the sea Ahab stared. There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance.

I gathered my courage and dared to ask him what he dreamed, what titanic goal drove him–and us–ever further into the wastes. He gave me a look that thrilled me with fear, that he might seize me and cast me forth into the icy waves; but at length, in a hero’s gravelled voice, he answered:

“Longer tweets,” he growled. “Swapping the Moments and Notifications tabs. And most of all,” his voice took on the fixed fury of a fanatic, “above all else, I say: hearts, not stars!”

Oh, Twitter. Where did it all go so wrong?

I ask that with love. Twitter remains my most-used app, usually the first I launch in the morning, often the last I use at night. But there can be no denying that it has languished and stagnated for more than a year now, while every attempt at improvement (eg Moments) has failed ignominiously, and its most glaring flaws–like Dick Costolo’s admission “We suck at dealing with abuse,” and the baffling ongoing inability to edit tweets–remain unrepaired.

Meanwhile, Twitter’s stock price continues to plummet; the markets demand user growth, which has plateaued. The apparent solution-in-waiting is to become more like Facebook, with longer tweets and curated streams. But the larger problem is that becoming more like Facebook is good tactics but terrible strategy. The more Twitter grows to resemble Facebook, the less relevant it becomes. Nobody needs Facebook Two.

It is true that Twitter is opaque and intimidating to new users (and the countless hordes who have already tried it and given up on it.) It is true that the rise of “screenshorts” — posting images full of text — is a strong indication that Twitter’s 140-character limit needs to become more flexible.

But longer tweets are a distraction, not a solution to Twitter’s most fundamental problems. (And 10K characters is 9K too many.) Twitter Moments are not the answer; Moments have probably already failed. Curated timelines may be good for new users, but they will alienate the many millions who still love the service today. Focusing on people who don’t like your business, while ignoring the huge market that loves what you do today — does that really sound like good strategy to anyone? Aren’t great leaders supposed to leverage one’s strengths?

I have a not-especially-modest proposal for how to solve almost all of Twitter’s problems. It’s very simple: let third-party developers build feeds. Extend their API and allow external developers to design, and users to install, custom tabs with custom feeds. So a user’s Twitter interface could include the Twitter-built Moments tab, if for some demented reason they actually wanted that … or, instead, an NBA fan who lives in Toronto could have a custom-built NBA feed, and a custom-built Toronto feed.

Or the StockTwits feed. Or the Nuzzel feed. Etc etc etc. All built by third parties– who share the income from “Promoted Tweets” within their feeds. Sure, give new users a default, Twitter-built curated feed. But also let them choose from a “Featured Feeds” list … or, better yet, from the Feed Store.

In short: make feeds Twitter’s apps.

Twitter can’t solve all of their problems themselves. What I wish they would realize is that they don’t have to. They have enough revenue that an offer to share it will provide third parties with more than enough incentive to create, and market, custom feeds for them. Those, in turn, will bring new users in, and old users back. There is no need for Twitter to grimly quest for preeminent success alone. All they need to do is open up their feeds to the developers of the world–and that great white whale can be brought to them on a silver platter.

1 Frustrated by Twitter’s lack of diversity, and the procession of inferior sailor-developers promoted over his tattooed and dark-skinned head, Queequeeg quit to join WhaleBook, where he soon became Chief Harpoon Officer. Obviously.