Twitter’s brevity is its biggest strength and its big weakness — and a massive challenge

If you’ve been following the Twitter (s twtr) rumor mill at all, you’ve probably seen reports about a number of things that the company is trying out — as part of its ongoing beta testing of new features, which it has a policy of never discussing in public — or is said to be thinking about, including getting rid of @ mentions, doing away with hashtags and changing “retweet” to “share.” On Wednesday, it added a feature that allows users to tag people in photos without using up any of their 140 characters, and to add up to four photos to a tweet.

There are a number of factors driving these experiments, but more than anything, the goal seems to be to find a way to cram as much stuff as possible into 140 characters. The very brevity that was Twitter’s claim to fame — and arguably helped drive adoption in the early days, since it was so short that it didn’t seem like a chore — is starting to seem more like a millstone around its neck.

The more it tries to alter the service, however, the more Twitter risks irritating long-time users, especially since it seems to be becoming more Facebook-like every day. But the company needs to figure out an answer to some of these problems, and quickly: according to one recent survey, only 11 percent of new users who signed up in 2012 are still using the service, and the share price has fallen by more than 30 percent since the beginning of the year.

From status updates to a social network

Looking at Twitter now, it’s sometimes hard to remember what it was like in the early days: just 140 characters of text, no more, with an occasional link — no photos, no expanded tweets or Twitter “Cards” with excerpts, and certainly no photo galleries or Vine videos. In the earliest days of the service, there weren’t even @ mentions or retweets, since both of those were introduced by users after the fact and then (in some cases grudgingly) adopted or supported by Twitter itself.


You can see vestiges of this evolution still in the way that retweets and @ mentions work (or don’t work, depending on your perspective). There are two different kinds of retweets — one that sends out an automated copy of the original on your account, which you can’t edit, and one called “quote” that puts quote marks around it, and lets you edit it. This is what some call a “manual retweet,” and many users hate it, in part because they say it can rob the original author of credit and isn’t automatically linked to any follow-up responses etc.

Removing the “quote” or manual RT option, however — as I feared Twitter might when I was part of a recent beta test, in which those options appeared to have vanished but eventually showed up buried in a secondary menu — raises the specter of diminished conversation, a potential future in which only automated responses or those that conform to some arbitrary Twitter rule are permitted.

Solving the conversation problem

This touches on another problem that Twitter is trying hard to solve, which is the conversation problem: in the beginning, the service was designed primarily to be broadcast — in the sense of sharing updates and/or links — rather than conversational. According to Nick Bilton’s book Hatching Twitter, co-founder Jack Dorsey didn’t even want there to be an actual “stream” of updates, but wanted them to vanish with each new one, as they do with text messaging.

That’s why there are so many weird or unnecessarily complicated holdovers from the early days, like the fact that if you start a tweet with an @ mention, only people who follow both you and your intended recipient will be able to see it. This rule — which can be avoided if you start a tweet with a period — has to be repeatedly explained to new (and even some not so new) users, to the point where social guru Gary Vaynerchuk put together a whole slide presentation about it.

From unicycle to cargo carrier

In many ways, Twitter’s entire history as a medium has been an exercise in taking a short-form messaging-style service like SMS and somehow transforming it into a Facebook-style social platform with a conversational structure and media-sharing features and advertising spots grafted onto it. It’s like taking a unicycle and adding more wheels and an automatic transmission and a cargo attachment, and then wondering why it seems ungainly to use — or why people miss the original.

How exactly do you keep the essence of what Twitter was — and theoretically still is — with its bumper-sticker-style brevity and pithiness, but also make room for other things that users seem to want and/or things that will help you attract more users and more ad revenue? In a nutshell, that’s what Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and his team are trying to figure out.

That’s why senior Twitter executives talk about “moving the scaffolding” of the service into the background, comments that helped spark the speculation about removing the @ mention. In some ways, this seems like a natural evolution, since Facebook doesn’t require users to specifically tag someone in order to comment. But how do you get rid of that kind of thing — or hide it — while keeping the kind of conversational structure that has made Twitter so appealing as a platform?

Given Twitter’s status as a public company with a $25-billion market value and a share price that appears to be in decline, these are more than just philosophical questions. They could literally be a matter of life and death.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Pond5 / Cienpies