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A case study of how Twitter fails new users

November 9, 2015

Fail Whale needs a three letter word for “obstreperous”.

Making a short Tweet can be anything but a sweet experience in Twitter. I was reminded of this on Friday afternoon when I tried to use Twitter to quickly notify the two responsible parties behind the United We Can bottle depot that there was a one hour difference between the way each of them listed the depot’s hours of operation:

My one-sentence head’s-up ended up taking over 10 minute of fussing and fiddling to compose, because Twitter’s user interface can make communicating beyond a simple grunt surprisingly difficult.

When people are looking for reasons why Twitter’s growth has stalled, I would suggest that, among other things, they look at the kind of hoops that Twitter forces users to go through just to send a a simple 139 character Tweet including one URL to two specific Twitter accounts — it’s ridiculous!

Anatomy of a tweet

Making a short tweet can be anything but a sweet experience.

Making a short tweet can be anything but a sweet experience.

What consumed my time should’ve be effortlessly easy, namely, addressing the Tweet and including a link to a website. Unfortunately, finding and importing Twitter usernames is amazingly crude and the functional ability to include URLs rests almost entirely on third-party services.

What’s worse, even though addresses and URLs are over-and-above the message, information-wise, Twitter chooses to count them all as text in the body of the tweet, forcing the user to balance higher functionality against the Twitter’s lowest common denominator: 140 text characters.

Step 1. Addressing the Tweet

Twitter's web interface tries to guess what username you are typing but its not such a good guesser.

Twitter’s web interface tries to guess usernames but its not always a good guesser.

You can address a public Tweet (message), to someone else on Twitter so that they automatically see it in their Notifications, simply by including their Twitter username in the body of your tweet.

As you type in the “Compose new Tweet” window, the Twitter web interface tries to help you by throwing up user accounts for you to select from, based on whatever word you’re typing. “Stan”, “Wood” and “Q W” automatically pop-up my account, for example.

This works (or doesn’t work) haphazardly in my experience and when there happens to be 5 Twitter users with the same real name as the user you’re looking for, the interface can’t help you sort them out.

In the case of the Friday tweet, typing “Encorp” or “Return” or ‘Return-it” yielded no suggestions for the possible Twitter username of Encorp Pacific, the industry stewardship group that oversees the Return-it recycling depot system.

As is often the case, doing a Google search in a new browser tab on the words “Encorp” and “Twitter” was the fastest way to find out that Encorp’s Twitter username was “@Return_it”.

Twitter likewise had no suggestions when I typed either “unitedwecan” or “@unitedwe”.

It took another Google search to find that United We Can (which started and runs the depot under the oversight of Encorp) has the twitter username of “@unitedwecan”.

Pasting both of those user names into my Tweet instantly ate up 22 of my 140 allowable characters.

Ask yourself how many new users are going to go to this much trouble?

Step 2. Including a link to a webpage

The Tiny URL browser add-on allows me to create a short URL on a right-click.

The Tiny URL browser add-on is only a right-click away.

And I wonder how many new users will know the proper way to include website URLs?

In my Friday Tweet, I wanted to include the URL that brings up the Google sidebar showing that the United We Can depot opens at 7 a.m. I also wanted to include the URL to the Encorp Return-it page showing that the depot opened at 8 a.m. but URLs also count toward the 140 character limit and there was no way that I could include both if I wanted to have any room left for a message.

The first URL was 95 characters long — 68 percent of the allowable length of a tweet.

At the very least, Twitter treats all URLs pasted into a Tweet as 22 characters long, regardless of their length. This is good but Tweets are so short that most Twitter users learn to do even better by using one of the dozens of third-party URL shortening services. I use a Firefox add-on called TinyURL Generator that will make a TinyURL shorthand link for any webpage I right-click on.

The two usernames and the one shorthand TinyURL left me with a mere 90 characters to play with for my actual message but I was frankly getting off easy.

If only the two Twitter users I named saw the Tweet I was happy. Normally, however, I would want to include hashtags in order to expose the tweet to users interested in the topics of the tweet.

A hashtag is any word or phrase typed with no spaces that begins with the hash character “#”. Twitter automatically turns them into searchable links. Clicking a hashtag in one Tweet will find all the Tweets containing that same hashtag.

As you type any word beginning with “#”, Twitter will try to show if what you are typing corresponds to any existing hashtags.

Twitter users learn to shape their Tweets to naturally include the hashtags that are essential to increasing Tweet readership (or “Tweetership”, if you will) but it’s not uncommon to feel the need to add extra hashtags at the end of the message.

This structural overhead, particularly usernames and hashtags, which is needed to create effective and visible Tweets, always comes at the expense of the actual message.

Step 3. The actual message

The way that Twitter has arranged things, the actual message that you want to send to other users — the reason why you are Tweeting in the first place — can easily end up taking a back seat to the supporting structural elements. That’s because the fixed length of usernames and URLs count toward the total length of the Tweet. It is the message that has to be cut and edited to fit whatever space is left over.

By cutting, shortening, rewording and generally throwing grammar and comprehension to the wind, I finally honed down my Friday Tweet until I had one whole character to spare.

And it only took somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes! What an underwhelming experience and one, I would suggest, that only committed Twitter users will be prepared to undertake — over and over again.

I can at least take some small comfort in the fact that the Tweet reached at  least half of its intended audience:

Say everything to no one or almost nothing to everyone

The kind of full text Tweets that a brand new user begins with are very likely to fall on deaf ears in the Twittersphere.

To reach a specific audience or a large audience, it is useful or necessary, depending, to include usernames and hashtags in a Tweet. And those usernames and hashtags count against the 140 character limit that Twitter famously imposes on public Tweets.

In this way, Twitter’s engineers have effectively build in a resistance to quality communication, akin to the resistance in wiring that costs electricity power the farther that it has to travel.

Basically, the more people that you try to reach, the less Twitter allows you to say and the more that you say, the less you can target the Tweet. And URLs in your tweet also count towards the message length, as do images.

The only thing that I recall Twitter telling me when I signed up was to go and find five other users to follow. I had to learn all of this other stuff myself. And having learned what I’ve learned, I have to patiently apply it every time that I Tweet.

But unlike a user who comes to Twitter simply looking for a fun, engaging experience, I’m one of the motivated users who’s also using Twitter to promote something, namely my WordPress blog.

A marketing network masquerading as a messaging service

I certainly believe that the vast majority of all of Twitter’s daily Tweeters are selling something — a product, a viewpoint, an agenda, or very often themselves.

Take away the accounts of companies, authors, actors, journalists. politicians, activists, programmers, and, um, bloggers — all there to promote something — and how many daily users would be left on Twitter, I wonder.

Those that are exploiting the platform for promotional purposes will always be sufficiently motivated to learn the ins and outs of Twitter as part of their job. They will also be the ones most likely to turn to third-party applications, such as HootSuite to remove most, if not all, of the barriers that I believe stand in the way of casual users getting very much out of Twitter.

Accidentally incompetent or deliberately hard to use?

This brings me to the nub of my thinking about Twitter and the trick that it appears to be trying to pull off.

Twitter looks like an instant messaging service that has been burying its core functionality under a succession of poorly thought-out and poorly implemented features and that may indeed be the case — Twitter certainly fired a lot of engineers in October, an act that makes more sense if they were seen to have botched their jobs.

But there is another way to see Twitter’s difficult interface: as a deliberate and calculated effort to create what programmers refer to as a “dark pattern“, a user interface designed to trick users somehow. The Dark Patterns website has a growing library of deceptive patterns split into 14 categories, including: “Bait and Switch”, “Disguised Ads”, “Friend Spim” and  “Privacy Zuckering”.

One could make the case that Twitter is an advertising channel-in-the-making that only pretends to be a messaging network. That it is pretending in order to build a large userbase and that it deliberately keeps its interface difficult in order to encourage a two-tier user base made up of a huge passive audience that does nothing but consume the content created by a relatively tiny minority of mostly professionals promoters and communicators.

In short, Twitter doesn’t want more than a fraction of its users Tweeting and the numbers would suggest that Twitter is succeeding up to a point.

According to Twitters own statistics, some 40 percent of all new users in 2014 didn’t tweet at all but just read the content created by the rest of Twitter’s users. The actual number of dedicated users who tweet daily is quite a small percentage of Twitter’s total user base. In 2011, it was reported that 50 percent of all tweets read came from a mere 0.05% of Twitter users.

By Twitter’s own estimate in its 2014 U.S. S.E.C. filing, some 23 million of its then estimated 241 active monthly users were robot accounts (accounts spitting out thinly veiled advertising tweets). When you subtract the users who don’t post this suggests that tweets from robot accounts make up over 15 percent of all content on Twitter.

But like I said, it’s only working up to a point.

Apparently the hardcore Twitter users — the promoters and other people who are motivated to really make use of Twitter and create lots of original Tweets with links and images ans stuff — just aren’t doing a scintillating-enough job to gain and keep the new users enthralled. Twitter’s growth has been flat as a strap for two straight quarters now.

And Twitter can only grow so big as a service for promoters. For one thing, there are comparatively few people on Earth that have something to sell.

Very few, compared to the number of people with connections to other people — which explains why Twitter only has some 316 million monthly active users, compared to Facebook’s 1.55 billion monthly users and why Facebook is spending billions to use drones and lasers to bring the Net to the farthest reaches of the world.

And for another thing, the promoters will only stay with Twitter so long as they believe that they will have a large audience of consumers to sell to.

Twitter’s recent addition of curated news called “Moments” (described as “the best of Twitter in an instant”) can be seen as more evidence of Twitter’s continuing focus on luring passive new users.

However, I say that Twitter should stop trying to raise sheep and instead grow a pair. Encouraging meaningful and rich communication across the board would do so much more for its future viability than creating some tepid Web 2.o version of television ever could.

Let a hundred flowers bloom, to coin a phrase

To get new users and to keep users, Twitter would do better to focus on making “rich” tweeting easier for everyone. In the immediate term this means making it easier and more transparent to include usernames and hashtags and URLs and images.

And it means that Twitter should reduce the penalty for doing so.

I believe that Twitter’s 140 character tweet limit should only cover the message a user writes, it shouldn’t include the character-eating overhead of usernames and URLs and images.

At a stroke, this separation would encourage clearer, richer and more engaging communication between more users and it would help make Twitter a more inviting platform for new users.

Ideally hashtags would also be omitted but I can see how that would result in huge long public tweets with every word beginning with a hash character!

It would really help new and old users alike if Twitter could put some time into actually fixing the many existing problems of its web interface. The ones that come to mind include making the username and hashtag lookup faster and more foolproof and fixing the awful conversation threading. And it’s long past due that Twitter gave users the ability to edit tweets after they have been published.

In the longer term I would love to see Twitter moved away from its weird preoccupation with keeping the user interface so literal and “flat”, particularly where URLs are concerned.

It would surely be better to allow users to specify any word or phrase as a link to a website or external file, as one can do quickly in virtually any blogging platform, This would largely do away with the problem of URL length in tweets.

There are lots of specific things that I would like, such as drag-and-drop functionality for importing usernames and list creation but I’m sure most Twitter users have a similar “wish list”.

My bottom line is simply that Twitter as it’s structured now, can be a terrible pain to use — the kind of pain that ordinary, sensible people avoid.

I can honestly say that If I didn’t have a blog that I wanted to promote I likely wouldn’t have ever set up a Twitter account and I likely wouldn’t have stayed. And the generally poor quality of the user experience means that my thoughts are never that far from the “Deactivate my account” button.

Twitter could be a good thing and perhaps it once was a great thing but here and now it too often feels to me like a chore, like re-categorizing blog posts or cleaning up my bookmarks.

There’s a real question why I or anyone else should waste time suggesting positive changes. I’ve seen no evidence that Twitter’s management (whomever that constitutes today) plans to do anything but further dumb up its platform with more top-down promoted and curated content, which is a shame.

Admittedly, Twitter did just change the “Favorite” icon from a star to a little heart, but that was a shame also.

At least I can happily report that there’s a Chrome extension called Fav Forever to fix that little boo boo. Click the images to enlarge them.

From → Google, Internet

One Comment
  1. Accounts with long usernames! *shakes fist*


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