140 Characters Are Enough for a Clear Vision

Twitter should be the most valuable social network in the world. In its ten years of existence, the “micro-blogging” service has worked itself into the psyche of millions of people. It’s often the fastest way to learn about breaking news, and one of the only ways to interact directly with movers and shakers. President Trump uses it like FDR used radio: as a means of conveying his thoughts directly to the citizenry of the U.S.

Twitter is a useful service that provides for important needs. It’s almost civic infrastructure in some ways. And yet, it struggles. Its user growth has stalled, and its current market capitalization is lower than Snapchat (a service whose usefulness eludes me.) Given Twitter’s pivotal role in the 2016 U.S. election, and the fact that presidential tweets are considered official statements, the company should be on top of the world. Why isn’t it?

As with many technology startups, Twitter started as an experiment in search of a practical use. Founder Ev Williams described the company’s early period in an interview:

“There are certain businesses that you know what they are when they’re born. You don’t necessarily know how big they are or what’s going to make them successful, but Google, for example, was always a search engine.

With Twitter, it wasn’t clear what it was. They called it a social network, they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define, because it didn’t replace anything. There was this path of discovery with something like that, where over time you figure out what it is.”

It’s ok to wander in search of a raison d’être when you’re young, scrappy, and privately funded, but eventually, ​a company needs to figure out what it does and how it adds value to the world. I suspect Twitter hasn’t, and it’s paying the price for its lack of vision. This is as close as I’ve seen:

Twitter is...

No, it isn’t.

This statement would have to read very differently if it started with the phrase “Twitter is where…” Amazon is where you go shopping. Google is where you search for stuff. Facebook is where you catch up with your friends and family. What sort of place is Twitter? What do you do there?

Yesterday, Twitter announced it’s considering increasing the 140-character limit for tweets — one of the service’s most distinctive (and valuable) features — to 280 characters. Why 280? I assume it’s an arbitrary number: Now with twice as many! This is the latest in a series significant structural changes the company has undertaken towards the goal of… well, that’s not clear. (Engagement? Increased revenue? Tighter control?) To me, they seem just more experiments on the path to figuring out what Twitter is. This, on​ an information environment where — no exaggeration! — dictums are being issued that could affect the fate of the planet.