What the Quick Bar Affair Says About Twitter’s Future

Over the weekend, a minor firestorm erupted over a new feature in the official Twitter iPhone and iPad clients known as the “Quick Bar,” a strip at the top of a user’s tweet-stream designed to show trending topics. As users started criticizing the feature for being too intrusive, however, it quickly became known as the “dickbar,” in reference to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. Although the company has since said that a new update is on its way that will make the feature less annoying, the outrage over the #dickbar is a symptom of a larger problem for Twitter: it wants to be a business, and users have gotten used to it being a utility.

The update with the Quick Bar included was actually released on Thursday, and the trending topics feature was just one of a number of enhancements that Twitter introduced in that update, including automated URL shortening (using the company’s internal shortener, t.co, which it launched last year) and an auto-complete function for user names and hashtags — including, ironically, the #dickbar hashtag. Criticism of the Quick Bar seemed to pick up speed, and then exploded over the weekend.

One of the big complaints about the new feature is the way the trending topics bar gets overlaid on top of the Twitter stream, appearing whenever the feed was refreshed, and partially obscuring tweets. According to spokesman Sean Garrett, the new update that Twitter has submitted to the Apple store “fixes some bugs, and makes it so the quickbar doesn’t overlay on tweets” — but judging by his tweets and those from CEO Costolo, there’s no sign the company plans to allow users to disable or turn off the feature, something many have been asking for since it was introduced.

Although a number of users have said that they find the whole idea of trending topics irritating and unnecessary, Costolo has made it clear that this is a key part of the service’s functionality, saying “If users didn’t like trends, we wouldn’t have trends.” And while the Twitter CEO didn’t come right out and say so, one of the obvious reasons is that promoted tweets and promoted trends are two of the ways in which the company is trying to generate revenue and profits — and doing this has become even more important now that Twitter is theoretically valued somewhere between $3.7 billion (based on its last round of financing) and $7.7 billion as a result of secondary-market trading.

The Quick Bar fiasco may be a minor event, but it is an indication of a larger problem for Twitter: namely, that it has spent so much of its life being an open communications platform — more like a social-networking utility than a business, with a focus on how it can enable real-time publishing for everyone, including those fighting oppressive governments around the world — that it is jarring for users whenever the company does something cold or calculating like suddenly cutting off Twitter applications (as it did recently with Ubermedia) or implementing features that are clearly designed more to generate revenue than they are to serve the needs of users.

This is a line that Facebook has been trying to walk as well, of course — being a social utility, but also making money from advertising — but it seems to have done a better job of mixing the two so far. As Costolo tries to expand the business to justify those soaring valuations, we are likely to see more clashes with users rather than less.

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