Change is coming to Twitter

Michelle Obama's Twitter feed (@FLOTUS) is a harbinger of a new, more colorful look.
Michelle Obama's Twitter feed (@FLOTUS) is a harbinger of a new, more colorful look.
Posted: April 13, 2014

Did you notice? Twitter is starting to look . . . different. Strange . . . it's turning into something familiar. . . . Wait . . . could it be . . . turning into Facebook?

Twitter announced on Tuesday that it's giving itself a makeover. Which speaks libraries about the present social-media moment.

Twitter design guy David Bellona calls it "the new you," but it's really "the new us."

Like the runner-up for homecoming queen, Twitter has its eye on the front-runner. (Facebook has about 1.3 billion active monthly users, while Twitter has 243 million.) She's prettier, friendlier, more popular. Twitter is no longer young, you know: At 8 years old, just as in dog years, it's grown - and people have started to ask what it will make of itself.

When it was a private company, and it offered a bare-bones way to send tiny messages all over the place, things were easier. But now it's a publicly held company, and feet have started tapping with impatience. Wall Street has lost that lovin' feelin': In the big, broad tech and biotech sell-off of the last month, Twitter is down 35 percent since early March.

Twitter makes money, all right: $422 million through the first nine months of the fiscal year, more than twice what it made a year earlier. Ad revenue is up, with 70 percent from mobile users. But, alas, Twitter loses money: Its net loss for those nine months was $133.9 million, with operating expenses of about $550 million and growing. What's not growing fast enough is its audience: That grew 6 percent in the period under discussion, down from 10 percent a year previous.

Changes must be made. But what changes?

Starting with the profile pages of famous tweeters such as Michelle Obama (@FLOTUS), and extending to all users as weeks go by, a brighter, more colorful Twitter will emerge. It hardly had any visuals at all before. Now it will hemorrhage with big, bright pictures of users and their interests. Just like Facebook.

An elegiac pause here, to remember the past that is no more. Good-bye, early Twitter, with your funky little birds and fail-whale. Perhaps inevitably, as pressure grows to get and retain new users and advertisers, Twitter will get less stripped-down, less DIY, sacrificing some of its unwashed charm in return for bucks.

On your home page, your tweets will now be different sizes. If they've gotten a lot of hits and retweets, they'll be larger, so you can see which tweets attracted the most interest. When you go to other people's pages, you can filter searches and look for plain-old tweets, tweets with images, or tweets with images and video.

Some basic ease-of-use things may change, too. If you use it a lot, Twitter may seem second-nature. But - as I discovered in a talk last fall at a senior center in Newtown - to newbies, Twitter can seem alien, bewildering, hard to get started with. "What do you use it for?" I was asked. "How do you get an account? What is that @ thing? Or that # thing? What do they do? How do I find people to follow? Why would I want to follow them? If I post something, who sees it?"

Twitter knows. On the Dec. 6 Today show, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said, "For many people, when they come to Twitter the language is opaque."

Look where he went next: "We need to push the scaffolding to the background, and bring the content forward. The media, the photos, the videos." What he means is - go big, bright, visual, and make it inviting and easy. Get out of people's way.

So what may go? Well, hashtags themselves. Hashtags - "that # thing" - were invented by users, not by Twitter. They help guide folks looking for tweets on a particular topic - so you can search for #philadelphia. The @ convention for replies may go away, too. Twitter was smart, a leader in "paving the cowpath" (taking user-originated changes and uses and making them official). These gewgaws became how you did things. Facebook uses hashtags now. And there's that + in Google+. Gewgaws happen.

But in its next life, Twitter gewgaws may go away. At a March 17 newspaper conference, Vivian Schiller, head of news for Twitter, called @ and # "arcane." Later, she denied Twitter was getting rid of them, but she did say in a March 19 tweet that "There's a lot of creative thinking going on around how to make Twitter more and more intuitive. Watch this space."

As Costolo said in February, the coming changes are "very much about making it easier for people who first come to the platform to get it more quickly. . . . It's not just 'Get it in the first weeks and months on Twitter,' it's 'Get it in the first moments, the first day on Twitter.' "

Some folks are afraid Twitter will become even more like Facebook. Will it make you deal with multiple streams of tweets? (Right now, most Twitter users see all their followers' activity in one stream. What if, as in Facebook, you gradually get pushed into seeing some more than others?) And will we have to pay someday to see things, or - worse - to have others see us?

Monetization talks. The tweet smell of success.

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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