A question that Twitter needs to ask itself

Yesterday, Twitter announced that it was launching its own version of photo filters and photo editing tools. And like all news around social networks — Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — it got the treatment normally reserved for the Kardashians. But, then we do live in the golden age of narcissism thanks to this weapon of amplified narcissism.

Dick Costolo Twitter Instagram filters face

The news was announced by a Twitter designer. Nowhere was it mentioned in the post that Twitter didn’t really build these filters and photo editing tools. It had outsourced these features to New York-based startup Aviary, which has been building these tools for others for a long time. When I asked Twitter why it chose Aviary, I got this answer: “We wanted to work with a company that has strong expertise in mobile photo filtering. We partnered with Aviary, and we’re grateful to them for powering our filters and effects.”

Photos outsourced

Twitter, by the way, had these filters on its product roadmap for a while, but somehow never built them. Of course, this isn’t the first time Twitter has outsourced its photo needs to someone else. It was using Photobucket for its photo storage needs, though today the company announced its own storage system.

Twitter outsourcing its photo features twice is in sharp contrast with Facebook, which developed its own photo hosting and sharing capabilities and has in fact devoted immense technical resources to the photo division. It made photos the core focus of the Facebook experience. Most like to think that Facebook bought Instagram for its photo app and filters, but in reality that (almost a) billion dollar deal was all about the social network, the engagement and the shifting audiences.

If photos are a core Twitter feature, then why is the company outsourcing it to someone else? I mean, it is not that the company is short of money or people — it has a billion dollars in its back pocket, it is doing about $300 million (or higher) in revenue and has about 1,300 or so employees. And if photos are not core to the Twitter experience, then why is it picking sides and fights with Instagram and others?

The question is not just about photos; it is actually much bigger and goes beyond this one feature set. Sure, I can make a wild statement like “Twitter has lost its product edge” or “Twitter can’t really build anything interesting.” Or I can point out that it introduced a major product overhaul a year ago. Or the note the fact that it is conflicted between the need for revenues and the need for a long-term product vision. But that would not be getting to the root of the problem.

What do you stand for?

I asked a Twitter spokesperson to describe Twitter’s core design, product and engineering capabilities — stuff they are really good at. What is Twitter’s core competency? So far, no comment.

I don’t expect an answer, but I had to ask. In fact, it is a question that Twitter should ask itself. Because in doing so it will be able to confront the deeper issues that have plagued its relationship with who used to be its customers — people.

RCA TELEVISONAnd if Twitter feels that its core competency is serving as a vehicle for brands to reach its audience (you know, like the old media companies) then it should focus all its energy on making sure that it can surface those brand messages inside Twitter’s core and fundamental product: its feed (and not its website). In doing so, the company can spend all its resources on making the Twitter feed amazing, reliable and unbreakable. If it wants to be the television network of the 21st century, then why not be as resilient and as constant as the television itself?

From the minute I saw Twitter five years ago, I fell in love with the service because of its ability to be a post-communication platform that enabled interactions. That ability to encourage real-time interactions — intimate or public — makes Twitter a fairly unique web service. Of course, its willingness to let the Twitter community define its future made it more disruptive.

That is my understanding of Twitter, and that really doesn’t matter. What matters is how well Twitter understands itself. Because by understanding itself, Twitter can then start to normalize its relationship with developers and impose practical restraints on what people can or can’t do. For example, it can say, thou shall not Tivo these tweets. Or you Mr. Developer, you cannot form a reputation/ranking system based on Twitter’s feed.

(By the way, shouldn’t Twitter be building a more official version of Klout? How come they have not shut that crappy service down?)

It would also mean that Twitter can allow developers who want to build front-end apps on top of the feed as long as it can bring more eyeballs to the feed. Sort of like how it doesn’t matter if you see Big Bang Theory on a Samsung or a Vizio TV set.

It would also allow the company to go back to what made it so wonderful – a network that had the intimacy of one to one connections, the reach of a one-to-many network and freedom to be used on any device, any platform and in any app.