The past few weeks have come with two major reveals for the weirdos who follow online social networks. The first was big news. Twitter’s internal documents leaked and the identity-crisis of earth’s most popular start-up is now public. The second was more under the radar but just as important. In a memo that went out to staff, the CEO of MySpace admitted that their users are caught between three competing notions of what MySpace is or should be.

Twitter and Myspace are different companies in different markets but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that they share, and will always share, the exact same problem. MySpace and Twitter are hugely popular for uses neither company anticipated. The mission of each company is so vague that their products are stretched and molded into a variety of different uses. Instead of targeting and building their business around one of these users they take their sudden popularity as a sign they have a killer product. They don’t.

Scale is Everything

When an industry is in transition or an idea like ‘social networking’ is still being fleshed out, getting explosively popular without knowing the nuances of why is a curse. Twitter is young but in my opinion, it’s already too late. It has grown too big, too fast, for too many different purposes. It will take 2 or three years but Twitter will be lapped by a variety of similar services with focus and actual business models; how Facebook developed in response to MySpace sheds light on what kind.

How MySpace Scaled

Since its inception MySpace has gone after users as if they were Pokemon’. MySpace managers ran competitions on sign ups and the employes used a slew of methods to capture. The result was a sprawling network of users but by 2005, it seemed to be working. If you looked at the stats, MySpace was an utter phenomena. It destroyed Friendster and after it was purchased by Murdoch it was getting all types of press and valuations. What the raw stats didn’t tell you is that user habits on the site looked something like this: 

The problem with this way of scaling is simple. When a new cultural practice, like ‘social networking’, is in the grass roots stages of development you can’t assume that people are going to your site because they like it. Your competition doesn’t really exist yet. What they might like are certain aspects of your product or they might be using parts of it in ways you never designed. The only way to address this is to study your users obsessively, focus on a particular experience, then update your product accordingly.

Because MySpace grew in so many different markets at a single time and gave users so much space to use the service how they liked, they’ve never been in a position to either watch or effectively control this experience. How do you update a product without knowing its target? You don’t. MySpace at its height and the current MySpace look remarkably similar, it lost control to its users. It has gone from being hailed as one of the best acquisitions ever made to a drain on News Corps portfolio. The results look like this: 

How Facebook Scaled

When it comes down to it the mechanisms of MySpace and Facebook are not that different. The pieces and concept are nearly the same. Both are constructed of user profiles, avatars, walls, interest spaces, groups, photo capabilities, and a friend confirmation/listing process.

Facebook distinguished itself philosophically and pragmatically. Zuckerberg’s biggest insight into designing the site was that you are online who you are in real life. Facebook was one of the first social networks to emphasize genuine identity insofar as they required full names, university email addresses, and deleted accounts that used aliases. The second was pragmatic. Facebook launched in a single target market. In this case, of course, it was Harvard.

What this enabled was a less abstract more manageable mission. Instead of having to define what an ‘online social networking space’ was supposed to be for everyone, Zuckerburg just had to answer for Harvard. As Facebook became popular on campus, he was able to see directly into how his peers interacted with the site and was able to update the product to help them use it more efficiently. Because they were all college students, the feedback he was getting was focused and nuanced. Having less users also meant they could redesign their entire product without pissing off disparate subsections. The result was an incremental evolution. The Facbeook that started at Harvard looks radically different than the one we use today. It worked.

How Twitter Scaled

Twitter grew much like MySpace. It ran competition for signing up users, aliases were allowed, and it grew in multiple markets at the exact same time. Twitter started as a group SMS texting service then became popular for something wholly different. By restricting the length of a message the site inadvertently addressed one of the oldest problems in group communication. How do you hear many voices at a single time? Twitter’s answer is dead simple. 140.

This little restriction has produced a fascinating, highly-addictive product. If you look at the stats, Twitter seems to be working. It’s one of the most popular websites in the world and now has an excess of 44 million members. For those who invested or employees that had stock options, it must be an incredible feeling. I have grown to love Twitter but in my opinion we are rapidly approaching its peak. Its parallels to MySpace in 2006 are explicit. Twitter has been bootstrapped for a vast number of uses and while its exciting to watch, its service is not containable . Like MySpace, Twitter is getting pulled in a variety of directions:

Why Twitter Will Dissolve and Turn into Detroit

The ability to hear and communicate messages with a group is what brought Twitter its initial wave of users but the real allure of Twitter, the reason it has caught the imagination of the press and millions of users, is something much more abstract.

On Twitter, you can hear a public.

Of course, there isn’t just one public, there is an infinite number. Whether it’s your country, your college, your city, or a shared niche interest like nyc media, everyone belongs to many publics and most everyone has a natural curiosity about what’s happening inside of them.

Twitter offers a way to manage how you see these publics. The problem is that its 140 character restriction is a blunt instrument. The site does not reflect the potential or nuance in which a public can speak to itself online. 

Twitter as a network is an ungodly mess. From the onset, the site has allowed users to register aliases on custom URLs and because of it, usernames are inconsistent and confusing. It’s hard to find people who you know and its often even difficult to deduct wether that person is who they claim to be. Twitter is mobbed by impersonators, some of them hilarious, others manipulating. Twitter addresses this issue recently by creating a ‘Verified Account’ stamp, its sloppy but more importantly, perpetually incomplete.

There are a host of other problems related to reputation and maintaing users but the biggest issue concerns its identity, which is also where the leaked documents got interesting. Twitter employees are so clearly uncertain about what their product is even doing. Shots at it swayed from, “Twitter  is for discovering and sharing what is happening right now,” to, “Twitter makes you smarter, faster, more efficient and more powerful.”  

Twitter became popular before it had a mission. What this means is that its employees and investors will forever be trapped in boardrooms having these inane cyclical discussions about its identity. Twitter will either perpetually be simple insofar as its millions of users will have to hack the service to reflect their own values or it will roll the dice on a focus, put the site through chronic redesigns, and risk a mass user exodus. Either way its top talent will likely get frustrated and leave the company. Its top users will drift to something else then jump. 

How Twitter will Resolve

The first thing to realize is that there probably isn’t going to be just one product to replace Twitter, there will be several and they will battle it out or find niches. I see their design following two trends with a potential for a hybrid. 

The first trend is a service with the most minimal centralization possible. Both Dave Winer and Anil Dash have discussed plans for such a product. Winer calls his the RSSCloud and Dash describes the project more generally as the Push Button web. The RSSCloud grew from discussions with Jay Rosen over frustrations with Twitter and how its users have been bootstrapping. The line of thought is that your data belongs to you, not Twitter, and you should be able to use your data how you like with as little brand interference as possible. The proposal is to build RSSCloud, a loosely coupled service that will push your data to any website in real time.

The second is a product that is centralized but has an elegant way of organizing its content and attracting users. This is a product that would look and scale much like Facebook. It would start in a single target market and develop as a place for users to hear and communicate to that public. Ideally it would begin in a cloistered network like a university where establishing members is as easy as checking their .edu email address. 

Addressing what’s wrong with Twitter isn’t going to come from thin air. It’s going to take a lot of time, development, and platform competition.

Many will soon be working on this, myself included. What will fill the blank is likely to define modern news production. 
MySpace is to Facebook as Twitter is to ______
by Cody Brown
August 2009