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How to save Twitter

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Twitter is in trouble again, leading to the resignation of CEO Dick Costolo and an uncertain future with company founder and current Square CEO Jack Dorsey serving as "interim" CEO. Since media types love Twitter, even if Wall Street doesn't, the web is suddenly full of schemes to save the company. Except most of these proposals seem to take for granted that the core problem with Twitter is that shareholders are sad its stock price hasn't gone up since the company's IPO.

But while this is certainly a problem of some sort, it's not a very serious one. Twitter is, after all, mostly owned by very rich people. If you want to know what multimillionaires think Twitter ought to do in order to make them even richer multimillionaires, you should probably listen to Chris Sacca, who is very rich and owns tons of Twitter stock. Alternatively, Twitter could just try to bluff Apple and Google and maybe Facebook or Microsoft into some kind of bidding war to buy the company.

But the actually sad thing about Twitter flailing isn't that it might make some rich people slightly less rich; it's that a service from which tens of millions of people around the world derive enormous value might collapse, vanish, or be ruined.

Here's how to do what matters — save Twitter the service, not Twitter the wealth-maximization vehicle.

Have some self-respect

This is really the most important one. The big problem with Twitter, allegedly, is that it's a lot less popular than Facebook. And so it is.

That said, Twitter has about 300 million monthly active users. By contrast, 114.4 million people watched the last Super Bowl. Toyota sells about 10 million cars per year. There are 250 million people living in Indonesia. But professional football is not a failure, Toyota is the world's largest car company, and Indonesia is not a small country.

This is the most important point to remember amid all the Twitter worrying: Twitter is extremely popular, it's extremely valuable to its heaviest users, and it's a service that's legitimately changed the world.

If every product that couldn't meet the "as popular as Facebook" test spent its days wallowing in misery, flailing around in search of growth, then the entire business world would be in a constant state of chaos and upheaval. Twitter needs to do what grownup companies do — focus on what it's good at and get better and better at executing on it.

Forget about advertising

Yes that's totally insane. Advertising is how modern internet companies make money.

And yet advertising on Twitter is a fundamentally dumb idea. In part, that's because so much of Twitter is free advertising — half of what you see on the service is celebrities, media personalities, politicians, small businesses, and national brands tweeting out little nuggets of this or that to promote themselves.

This idea of self-promotion without advertising is at the core of what makes Twitter great. On Twitter, the way you deliver your message to people isn't to pay a centralized distributor or targeting algorithm. It's to craft a Twitter feed that is entertaining and relevant to the people you're trying to reach. When one of my favorite bands announced their next album in June, they didn't need an ad to get me to preorder it.

I found it on Twitter because not only do I love Metric, I also love their Twitter account, with its jokes and cool photos and all the rest.

Charge users money

How much money? I'm not sure exactly. But the basic idea would be to combine a free tier, suitable to the needs of the majority of Twitter users, with one or more paid tiers for accounts that want to be able to amass large quantities of followers.

Most people, in other words, would be able to use Twitter for free and follow all their favorite celebrities, sports stars, writers, etc. But a celebrity, sports star, writer, corporate brand, or small business that wanted to use Twitter as a publicity and promotional vehicle would need to pay. Maybe the free tier would be limited to 100 followers, and then you could have a cheap tier for power users and small businesses and an expensive tier for folks who wanted access to six- or seven-figure follower counts.

If you wanted to square this business model with the current vogue for free, ad-supported services, you would say it's a free service (that's the tier most people use) that's financially supported by charging brands money for access to the platform so they can conduct native advertising campaigns.

But call it whatever you want. The point is that you can make Twitter free for readers, and not-free for people looking to reach readers.

Improve the experience

Saving Twitter by radically changing it would be beside the point. Accepting that it shouldn't change too much would help stabilize the problem by reducing the need for R&D expenditures. But without chasing the fantasy of dramatic transformation, the company should work on iteratively improving its core product:

  • Tackle harassment: This is the number-one complaint about Twitter from actual heavy Twitter users. The level of Twitter harassment I experience is borderline unacceptable, and women and people of color I know get it 10 to 100 times worse. From a non–Wall Street perspective, this is the only aspect of Twitter that's genuinely broken.
  • Welcome back third-party developers: Twitter began to go astray when it began limiting third-party developers' access to the Twitter API in order to more fully dominate the advertising experience. People will like Twitter better if they can choose from a competitive set of Twitter clients. Make this credible by demanding that third-party client developers share some of their revenue in exchange for API access.
  • Make @-replying work properly: The art of holding a conversation on Twitter by placing @SoAndSo at the start of the message was originally a user hack rather than a feature of the platform. And even today, it works too much like a hack — displaying the username (rather than actual name) of the person you're replying to and counting the user name against the 140-character limit.
  • Verify people: Twitter's current approach to verification is snobbish and bizarre. The service should find a way to allow anyone who wants to be "verified" to link their Twitter account to a "real world" identity, rather than limiting that option to a somewhat arbitrarily defined group of public figures.

Let Twitter be Twitter

Twitter is a widely popular service that has fundamentally transformed the way people communicate and the way news and culture is experienced. It also happens to be pretty great. But like everything else in life, it could benefit from hard work and continued improvement. The great risk is that unrealistic Wall Street expectations, investor greed, executive panic, and a curious lack of self-confidence will destroy something truly useful and leave nothing of note behind.