Mossberg: Twitter has become secret-handshake software

Walt Mossberg

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an Executive Editor at The Verge and Editor at Large of Re/code.

Hardly a day has gone by recently when people interested in tech haven't found another alarming headline about Twitter. Departures of major executives. Worries about growth in users. Questions about how it can bring in more revenues. Plunging confidence in the company on Wall Street. Predictions of its very doom.

But, underneath all that, Twitter's fundamental problem is this: it's too hard to use.

To potential new users, it's a real challenge to learn all of Twitter's often arcane little features. And even for people who have been using the service multiple times daily for years, like me, it can be tricky to decide when to use which feature and in which situation. For instance, new users might be confused about what a retweet is, or the difference between that and a "quote tweet" (where you say more about something you're reposting). And they surely might not understand the need to place a period before the handle of a user, when that handle is at the very start of a tweet you compose, yet not elsewhere in the tweet.

Twitter's fundamental problem is that it's too hard to use.

But, yesterday, I stumbled upon a friendly but dogged debate among several very experienced, heavy Twitter users about when it's appropriate to use quote tweets and periods.

And there are many more examples. Try to explain to a mainstream consumer, even someone who's decent at using an iPhone or Facebook, what counts in the famed 140-character limit in a tweet, or the difference between "blocking" or "muting" an unwanted follower, or whether "liking" a tweet means you agree with it or not.

As for Twitter's version of private chatting, Direct Messages? It feels like a forgotten stepchild.

Basically, Twitter has become what I call "secret-handshake software" — something that's so complicated that, as in a secret society, only insiders know the rituals that unlock its power.

That has to stop. New Twitter CEO (and co-founder) Jack Dorsey needs to tear out a lot of this stuff by the roots and rebuild the service in a clearer, more accessible form. The trick will be to find a way to do this that's both inviting for new users and still attractive to Twitter addicts.

Dorsey has said publicly that he wants to make Twitter "far more approachable than it has been in the past." And, he has said, "What should you expect from Twitter? You should expect Twitter to be as easy as looking out your window to see what's happening."

Jack Dorsey has to walk the talk

But he has to walk the talk. One way to do that would be to either build much better apps for accessing Twitter, especially on mobile, or to allow third-party developers, who were restricted a few years ago, back into the tent as full, creative citizens. Personally, I'd love to see more and faster iteration on TweetDeck, the powerful desktop app owned by Twitter that lets you quickly follow multiple people and streams. It gets updated very slowly and has no real equivalent on mobile, even on tablets or phablets.

As another example of his open mind, Dorsey has said he's considering allowing tweets of up to 10,000 characters. Maybe that would be a good thing for users (as opposed to his business model). Maybe not.

But complexity isn't the only problem Twitter has. While its attraction is the smart, funny, short comments people you follow make, you may never see them. Why? Because members' news feeds update very quickly, and in a rigid, reverse chronological order. Unless you are staring at Twitter all day, you'll miss huge numbers of tweets, including some you might consider gems that weren't retweeted enough to appear again and again.

Example: earlier this week, when I looked at my Twitter account for the first time in the morning, it said my feed had 2,992 new tweets since the night before. (I follow about 700 people, which may be higher than a lot of users.) Like every day, I had no time to scan all that I'd missed, even though, like every day, I checked into Twitter on various devices at least a dozen times. The service has tried to alleviate this with a feature called "While you were away," which resurfaces a handful of tweets that Twitter's algorithm thinks you'd like to see based on your past behavior. But it's not enough.

Twitter needs to give the user more control

Dorsey has said "you will see us continue to question our reverse chronological timeline." That's good, but this shouldn't be done just by building smarter or different algorithms. Twitter needs to give the user more control. For instance, you should optionally be able to see tweets from favorite followers or about favorite topics pinned to the top of the feed, at least for some period of time. You should also be able to "save" tweets inside Twitter's web site or an app for viewing later.

Facebook, whose feed also needs work, has at least made a start by letting users choose whose posts they'd like to see first whenever they look at their home feed.

Finally, Twitter has to do much better at quelling spam and harassment on its service. It has taken some steps, but not enough. The company has long prided itself on being open to all kinds of speech, but it has failed to create a culture of civility and safety. This problem isn't unique to Twitter. But the very nature of the service, and its wild-west history, make it more susceptible to everything from simple ad hominem attacks to truly scary attacks, especially against women.

the web's toughest bars to harassment should be a core feature

As on many sites, you can report bad actors. But if you want to stop seeing their stuff, you have just two blunt tools: the aforementioned blocking and muting. Compare that to Facebook's much more versatile methods for choosing who can see your posts and who can comment on them or post on your timeline.

So that major makeover I think Dorsey should undertake should include the web's smartest, toughest bars to harassment as a core feature.

I like Twitter. I learn from it. I promote my work there and I cite the work of others. I take seriously civil criticism of my writing that appears there. Like a million others this past week, I shared snowstorm photos there. But Twitter needs much more than better news feed algorithms and 10,000-character posts. It needs a real rethink.

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