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Why Twitter hasn't grown as huge as Facebook

Jack Dorsey, who takes over as Twitter's interim CEO on July 1.
Jack Dorsey, who takes over as Twitter's interim CEO on July 1.
Kimberly White/Getty Images

This past week was a bad one for both Twitter and Reddit. Reddit became embroiled in controversy after it banned a particularly vicious subreddit called Fat People Hate. On Thursday, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo resigned after years of huge losses.

Behind the problems of these two very different sites is a common struggle: most internet users don't particularly understand or like Twitter or Reddit. The average user finds both sites confusing and intimidating. Some — particularly women — find them downright hostile.

Twitter and Reddit retained a do-it-yourself ethos of the early internet that gives users powerful sharing tools, but leaves it up to them to decide what to do with those tools. This ethos made them great, attracted power users, and helped them scale — but only up to a point. It's also become a big part of the reason the sites have struggled to appeal to the average internet user.

Popular technologies demand less of their users

If you walk by the desks of software developers here at Vox — or at virtually any other company — there's a good chance you'll see them using a Unix command-line interface that dates back to the 1970s. Geeks continue to use the Unix command line because —once you know how to use it — it's a powerful way to perform complex computing tasks.

But most users don't need the power, complexity, or hassles of using a Unix command line, which is why it never caught on with ordinary users. Until recently, most people used Windows PCs or Macs with a more user-friendly graphical user interface. More recently, people have been shifting toward even simpler computing technologies: smartphones and tablets. These mobile platforms provide fewer capabilities than a conventional PC — it's hard to write a blog post or manage a complex spreadsheet on an iPhone — but they're also easy to learn and demand little of users.

The older, more complex computing platforms didn't die. Programmers still use Unix-based operating systems. Many white-collar professionals still use PCs. But for the average person, the complexity of a PC is more trouble than it's worth. So smartphones are becoming the most popular category of computer.

Facebook demands less of its users than Twitter does

A similar principle applies to social media technologies: the most popular services tend to be the ones that demand the least from their users. And Twitter demands a lot more of users than Facebook does.

To make Twitter manageable, you have to carefully curate the list of people you follow to avoid being overwhelmed. The rules for Twitter conversations — for example, the fact that starting a tweet with someone's username will hide it from anyone not already following that user — are not intuitive to someone dropping by the site for the first, or even the 10th, time. And many users find it intimidating to write tweets that anyone in the world could read.

Twitter helps users sift through a lot of information efficiently, which makes it invaluable for a media professional like me. But most people don't want to sift through large volumes of information. They just want to look at pictures of their friends' weddings, vacations, and babies with a minimum of hassle. And Facebook makes this really easy.

Everything I've said about Twitter also applies to Reddit. For people who have mastered the site's complex rules, it's a fabulous place to find and share interesting content. But Reddit has a lot of arcane bylaws and an insular culture that's not always welcoming to newcomers. So while it has millions of users, it's not anywhere near as big as Facebook, nor is it growing as quickly as Instagram or Tumblr.

The openness of Twitter and Reddit makes them prone to harassment

Facebook is like a suburban shopping mall — it's a tightly controlled environment that tries to guarantee customers will never have a bad experience. Photos containing nudity are forbidden, for example, and users are required to use their real names. And because most Facebook interaction happens in private, there are few opportunities for strangers to harass one another.

Twitter is more like a busy urban street. Users shout, and almost anyone can hear them. The service is designed to foster open-ended conversations among strangers, and some people have taken this as an invitation to harass others on the service.

Reddit, meanwhile, is an urban street that happens to contain an open-air drug market and a red-light district.

In recent months, both sites have devoted more resources to fighting this kind of abuse. But ridding the sites of abuse won't be easy, because the versatility of the tools Twitter and Reddit provide to their users means they are more prone to being used for malicious purposes as well as valuable ones.

Regardless, the prevalence of online harassment represents another demand that these sites effectively place on their users. For certain users — especially women — spending time on Twitter or Reddit means you're more likely to have your day ruined by threats or crude insults. Which makes them less appealing than other sites that are designed to discourage this kind of abuse.

Why Twitter shouldn't try to become Facebook

Twitter is under immense pressure to expand its audience so it can generate the kind of revenues and profits Facebook does. But there are good reasons to think this won't work — and that trying to make it work might destroy the site in the process.

Microsoft's struggles to adapt to the mobile revolution provide an instructive analogy. For years, Microsoft has been struggling to produce a version of its Windows operating system that works well on tablets. The result has often been products that occupy an awkward middle ground — neither as powerful as full-scale Windows PC nor as user-friendly as an iPad. It's hard to reduce the complexity of a Windows PC without simultaneously eliminating features that make it useful. After several flops, Microsoft has finally achieved modest success with the Surface Pro 3, but Windows-based tablets are still a lot less popular than iPads and Android tablets.

A similar point applies to social networks. Twitter's complexity isn't just a problem the company needs to eliminate, it's an essential part of what makes the site useful right now. Twitter facilitates a type of rich, open conversation that's much harder to have on a more restrictive platform like Facebook or Instagram. It's why its most committed users are so incredibly committed, and why they create so much valuable, free content for the service.

While more complex products tend to be less popular in relative terms, they can still be huge markets in absolute terms. Microsoft is a hugely profitable company because it can continue selling its products to businesses that need the power of a full-scale PC. Similarly, the rapid growth of Facebook and Instagram doesn't mean that Twitter or Reddit is doomed; there will continue to be tens or even hundreds of millions of people who want to use these sites.

Twitter's problem is that it hasn't found a way to monetize its relatively small but highly engaged and influential audience. Microsoft makes a lot of money from every Windows license it sells, so it doesn't matter that people buy fewer PCs than mobile devices. But advertisers don't seem willing to pay more to advertise to a Twitter user than a Facebook user. So Twitter's smaller audience has translated to a lot less money in the bank.