Twitter Doesn't Get Community

For those of you who don’t know, yesterday Twitter made a “small settings update” that prevents you from seeing any @replies from your friends that reply to a user that you aren’t following. I’m not going to explain the details, since ReadWriteWeb and TechCrunch did a great job of covering the change. You can read those two articles if you want the background information.

What I do want to talk about is how this is a symptom of a greater problem that has the potential to destroy Twitter if they don’t make some changes to the way they operate. But first, a history lesson. @replies on Twitter evolved out of a community groundswell where people started using @replies to reply to other people on Twitter. Over time, Twitter realized that this was a great way for people to make public replies, and they began officially supporting this community driven feature. Now, they are taking something the community built and making it significantly less useful. Twitter doesn’t get community.

This is very dangerous for Twitter, since the service only survives because of the community of people who use Twitter. By all technical measures, Identica / Laconica is a superior platform for Twitter-like conversations, but few people use it. Why? Because the community is already on Twitter, and getting a community to move to a new service is close to impossible unless the community isn’t being supported. Missteps, like this one, have the potential to drive the community away from Twitter. If the community moves away from Twitter and to a new service, Twitter will die, because without the community, Twitter has nothing.

I’m not one to complain without some suggestions for how to improve, so here’s my suggestion. Twitter needs to hire a kick-ass community manager. I’m sitting here at the Community 2.0 conference, and there are plenty of fantastic community managers for Twitter to choose from. A great community manager can be an advocate and voice for the community from within Twitter to help the company understand how it’s actions will be received by the community and help Twitter avoid disasters like this most recent one.

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12 Responses to “Twitter Doesn't Get Community”


  • Agree with your assessment that Twitter needs a community manager, or at least someone who gets how Twitter is used. It seems the decisions at Twitter are being made by folks who don’t really use the service – as I type this, @ev and @biz have a grand total of 6 tweets in the last 24 hours.

  • I just started using Identica. What do you think of the idea of building custom communities around specific groups and allowing messages to be posted to the groups? Archiving and searching capabilities which are superior to Twitter can be created since it’s an open source environment. User groups (communities) could be transferred to Identica as a whole instead of converting one user at a time.

    Twitter does not seem to have Google-like intuition about adding value to its users. There are definitely opportunities to create a microblogging platform with improved community features.

  • It may not be that they need a Community Manager, but they definitely need someone who understands a) the service is used by different people for different reasons, b) realizes that people want tools to manage the information flow the way that works for them, and c) someone who has the pull to actually get this done.

    Considering how borked search response was yesterday (search delivering tweets out of order from when they were sent, duplicating tweets in search, top results hours old instead of minutes old), I wonder if this sudden move was pushed from the tech side of cutting the load on the servers which is why I added c) because someone who gets community isn’t sufficient if the person making tech decisions doesn’t get community or isn’t swayed.

    (very sorry I missed the kick ass session so I don’t know if kick ass included the ability to help the whole org get community.)

  • At the very least the twitter people should have:

    A) Asked the community if they thought this change was a good idea (survey, or ask a random sampling of power users)

    B) Give us “better ways to discover and follow interesting accounts” before making this change so that we understand the trade offs.

    They also did a horrible job of explaining the change. After Marshall’s post last night I thought everything from retweets to #followfriday was hosed because of the change. Give us more clarity than a two paragraph blog post and the reaction MIGHT be a little less intense.

  • It’s no mistake that Identi.ca gets community better than Twitter. It was founded by Evan Prodromou, who’s most famous project beforehand was Wikitravel.

    Wikitravel was a success because Evan really groks community in a wiki way, and by moving fast to add oft-requested functionality that Twitter has lagged behind on (like groups), they’ve managed to create a vibrant and responsive approach to working with their community.

    I actually began my microblogging adventures on Identi.ca, and moved to Twitter because everyone in Portland tech was on it. If this replies debacle (which I am not particularly bothered by, personally) forces everyone off Twitter on to Identi.ca, I wouldn’t be perturbed.

  • Although I agree that Twitter doesn’t get it, I don’t think Twitter hiring a community manager is the solution. Twitter shouldn’t be calling the shots for micro-blogging, period — the community should. (Sorry Dawn, community managers aren’t the solution for everything :)

    To me the big problem is that micro-blogging isn’t standardized or federated, and one for-profit company holds all the keys to the castle. Just blogged about it: http://jasonmauer.com/2009/twitter-the-overlord/

  • I agree that a community manager, someone assigned to delivering important messages to the community in a timely manner and responding to requests is a great idea. Having someone in that position would have curtailed a lot of the drama yesterday.

    But even though this feature was originally community driven doesn’t mean it’s good for the current community if it means it’s going to bring the system down. I don’t think the current influx of Twitter users, or even some of the old timers, realize the “exponentiality” of Twitter communication. It’s massive. But without the system there is no way for the community to exist. Now I’m making an assumption that this problem is what’s driving the change since that’s what’s driven most of the feature withdrawals in the past, such as Track and With Others.

    Moveover, Twitter has always depended on the developer community to come up with ways to fill in the gaps they can’t. And this strategy is a good one. Twitter can’t do everything, especially for free, and it’s longevity is dependent on it becoming more like a platform than an app. I don’t doubt that someone will figure out a cool app that will make it easy to discover new people in interesting conversations.

    I’d like to see this community mature to a point where it takes responsibility for its impact on the technology. Like when a celebrity has a race with a cable news network to see who can get to a million followers faster we take as stronger stand and tell people that’s not what Twitter is for and why that’s actually *bad* for Twitter.

    But in the end, who can make this happen, lead this effort? A community manager. So I guess, Dawn, I agree with you, but maybe for different reasons. ;)

  • Agreed. Twitter definitely could use a community manager. But one has to wonder, arguably, that maybe the issue isn’t that Twitter doesn’t “get” the community, but rather that it just doesn’t care anymore.

    With new mainstream accounts like @aplusk, @oprah, and @kingsthings, who needs to grow a site by way of a community when you can have millions of new users whenever a celeb signs up? Very wrong, and you’d think they would have taken notes after Facebook’s “We know what’s best for you” debacle.

  • With a millions of users and billions of tweets and potential issues, a community manager, no matter how good, could never stay on top of the wide range of daily/weekly community-impacting-trendlets such as Ashton’s race to one million, Trend-pane hijackings, settings changes etc. Dawn, although I don’t disagree with your post entirely, allow me to open myself to flaming by pointing out that the @reply issue may well be a deal-breaker to YOUR (our) community of social media power-users, but this original community of Twitter users has been dwarfed significantly by people who are following the Ashtons, the Shaqs, the Tila Tequilas of the world. Looks like it’s time to find a way for the power users to enable “advanced settings” such as the @reply toggle, but default it to this new behavior for you know, my Mom. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” @replies were originally community created yes, when the community consisted of a fraction of what it does now. What can we create that can exist in today’s Twitter?

  • Well put, Dawn.

    I mean which is it, Twitter? You can’t scale or you just want to make things simpler? I don’t know about you, but I’m losing trust either way just because they’re contradicting themselves.

    Everyone please sign my #fixreplies petition here and RT to send a strong, unified message:
    http://bit.ly/fixtwitter

  • I should clarify a bit. The community doesn’t necessarily get to call the shots, especially when a change is required to improve stability; however, someone responsible for managing the community could have anticipated the changes, better communicated what needed to happen, how it would impact the community, and work with the community to better meet the needs of the company. In other words, I agree with what Jason, Katherine and others have to say.

    The community manager role is often misunderstood – it is really more about being a voice for the community to communicate the needs of the community within the company and then help communicate the needs of the company back into the community. This dual role is one of the things that makes corporate community management such a challenge – there are significant trade-offs and give and take between the company and the community. This also means that the community manager needs to understand the impact to various segments of the community from the very vocal power users to the less vocal casual users. Companies like Twitter tend to have issues when they neglect this role and neglect communications with the community.

  • Does anyone know WHY twitter decided on this move? I could imagine that it is maybe purely technical based. How much cpu time are they saving by simplifying their queries?

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