This piece first appeared on the Formation London blog.
The body of water cutting swathes through the city in which I live; this river twists as it flows. It carves out an unmistakable landmark, one that can only be crossed at distinct points – the bridges.
Content is no different on the internet.
It moves slowly, building through tributaries until it’s a mass of information that passes out to the bigger ocean of content. Those tributaries are Reddit, Imgur and Tumblr; the oceans are Facebook or gossip news sites. The bridges are our friends and connective networks.
The one thing about the tributaries and the river they feed is that they’re controllable. The river is slow moving, although it can be prone to flash floods.
Rivers are interesting to watch; however, even they can flow for hours with nothing much happening. Boats that have no distinguishing features, similar to most branded content, might go past, but unless someone is waving or they are different from the norm they are barely worth our attention. It takes algorithms to make those moments feel frequent, generally. We ignore the logs that undulate; we take little notice of the flickers of froth that surface as the water churns. Until someone points them out, pulls interesting pieces from the swirling waters.
Twitter is not a tributary. It’s not a slow-moving river that flows along a given path. It’s akin to a hydrant turned on full. It’s created by a collective stream of consciousness. As such, it’s harder to control the flow, or to pick out the things that might be worth paying attention to.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter users don’t necessarily follow friends. And like all uncontrollable streams, it is a cacophony for new users, one that they are likely to back away from. There is no set of tools that is universally capable of working for everyone.
This is causing consternation for the markets, and for those who created and run the company. They are discovering that advertising models don’t work when things flow fast. That it takes time to adapt to the speed at which information bubbles up, to adapt to the fact that you can’t catch everything. It’s what makes it such a great medium. It’s what makes it difficult to monetise using advertising. These messages can be missed, or easily ignored.
There is no universal experience on Twitter. And this is key to it thriving. Rather than try and make everyone use the media in the same way, it must find ways to help people tame the firehose of information, to create their own tributaries. They must turn away from the idea of becoming a river on which boats of branded content float down like the flushed turds they often are. We have Facebook for that.
For once, the ecosystem label makes sense here because Twitter is its own ecosystem – the internet equivalent of the Galápagos Islands. And It should celebrate this, rather than become a monoculture like Facebook. It can’t compete, which should be obvious by now.
Lists are one way of bringing about this change. Curated lists to be precise. These will demonstrate to new signups how Twitter works, and (most importantly) where its value lies. To make this part of the experience easier to use, and to bring the value people (or developers) can bring to this back into Twitter.
It’s a simple change in their frame of reference. But it’s harking back to the purpose the platform once had. As a smart person said: Twitter gives you the ability to listen to every conversation in the world. You just choose which ones to unmute.