The problem with Twitter

Starting from the mid-2000s, the dominant method to consume content was to follow individual blogs through RSS Feed readers such as Bloglines or Google Reader. You followed specific blogs, most of which (unlike this one) had content on specific topics.

So when I wanted to learn up on economics, I started following Marginal Revolution and Econlog. When I wanted to follow the global financial crisis, I added Felix Salmon and a couple of other blogs (which I don’t remember now). All I needed to do to read on specific topics was to follow specific people.

And then Google Reader Shared Items happened. Now, you didn’t really need to follow specific blogs, for there was a social network where people would share interesting stuff that they read. Now you could outsource following blogs to friends who became curators. So there was this one friend who would share pretty much every interesting post on Mashable. Another shared every interesting post from this blog called The Frontal Cortex. I didn’t need to follow these blogs. My “curator friends” shared the best pieces with me (and I know people relied on me for Econlog etc.).

Then around the turn of the decade, Twitter replaced Google Reader Shared Items as the primary content discovery platform. A couple of years later, Google would decommission Reader. The thing with Twitter was that the movement from following specific ideas and sites to following “curators” was complete.

While twitter also functions as a “normal” social network, a major function is the sharing of ideas, and so everyone on twitter is essentially a curator, sharing with her followers what she wants them to read. There is also scope for adding comments here, and adding one’s opinion to the content. This adds a sort of richness to the content, and people can filter stuff accordingly, without consuming everything one’s friend has shared.

The downside, however, is that you are forced to consume the opinions and links shared by everyone you follow. There might be someone who I might be following for his curation of technology links, but it might happen that he might also tweet heavily on politics, which I’m hardly interested in. There is an option to turn off retweets (which I’ve used liberally) but even so, there is a lot of “unwanted content” you have to consume from people. And since it is “opinion first” (and link later), you are forced to consume people’s opinion even if you’re just browsing their timeline.

What we need in Twitter is a way to curate people’s opinions on topics. For example, I might be interested in Person A’s opinion on politics but not anything else. Person B might offer good opinions on economics but might be lousy on other things. Person C might be good for technology and sports. And so forth.

Of course, you can’t charge people with classifying their own tweets – that will add too much friction to the process. What you need is an intelligent process or app that can help classify people’s tweets and show you only what you want to know.

I can think of a couple of designs for the app – one could be where you could tell it not to show any more tweets from someone on a particular topic (or block a topic itself). Another is for you to upvote and downvote tweets, so that the app learns your preferences and shows you what you want.

Yet, I’m not confident that such an app will be built. The problem is that twitter has been notorious in terms of cutting off access to its API to apps built on it, or cutting permissions of what apps can see (Facebook is as guilty here). So it’s a massive challenge to get people to actually invest in building twitter apps.

Twitter as it exists currently doesn’t work for me, though. I repeatedly find the problem that there is way too much outrage on my timeline, and despite mercilessly cutting the number of people I follow, I find that it’s a slippery slope and otherwise interesting people continue to tweet about stuff that I don’t want to read about. And so my engagement is dipping.

I don’t need twitter itself to do anything about it. All they should do is to send out credible signals that they’ll not pull the rug under the feet of developers, so that APIs can be developed, which can make the platform a much more pleasant experience for users.

Social Reading

Feedly, the RSS Reader I’ve been using ever since Google Reader shut down, has announced a feature called “Shared Collections“. This is something like the Google Reader shared items (much loved by its loyal users including me, but something that apparently wasn’t good enough for Google to retain), except that it is available only for premium users.

 

While this is in theory a great move by Feedly to start shared collections, recognising the unfulfilled demand for social reading post Google Reader, their implementation leaves a lot to be desired. And I’m writing this without having used the feature, for, in an extremely daft move, it is available only for pro users. My problem is with the pricing model, which charges content creators (or curators or aggregators, if you like to call them that) for sharing content!

There are so many things wrong with this that I don’t know where to start. Firstly, if you charge people for creating content, that significantly increases the barrier to creating content. If there is an article I like and want to share with my (currently non-existent) followers, the fact that I have to create a premium account to do so means that the barrier to doing so is too high.

Secondly, if I’m going to be a consumer of shared collections from other people, I’ll need a certain critical mass of friends before I start using the feature. I won’t start using a feature only because one or two friends are curating┬ácontent on it. The critical mass is much higher. And by putting barriers to entry to people who want to share, it makes this critical mass even more difficult to obtain.

Thirdly, Feedly doesn’t have a social network of itself so far (though I’m not aware what permissions they’ve taken from my when I used my Google account to log in to the service). And without having a ready social network for discovery (Google Reader leveraged the Google Talk network), how do they expect people to discover each other’s collections, once created? Are they relying on external networks such as Facebook or Twitter?

It is not easy to build a social network of curation. Google Reader had managed it quite well back in the day by first allowing people to share items without comment, then add external content, and then to add comments. It was an extremely powerful way for people to share blogs and other content, and discussion on that was rather active. I even remember quite a few people adding me on Google Talk for the sole reason of wanting to follow my Shared Items.

In recent times we’ve seen the news aggregator app Flipboard starting its personal collections feature. I have a collection, but don’t remember the last time I put something into it – for without any interaction on that, there’s absolutely no motivation. Flipboard, by the way, has access to your Facebook and Twitter graphs, and so has access to some sort of a social network. Yet, despite keeping the feature free, they haven’t been able to generate sufficient activity on it.

Feedly has got just about everything wrong with its Shared Collections feature. There is disincentive for content creators. There is no incentive for content consumers. They don’t have a ready social network. And there doesn’t seem to be any interaction.

If only Google were to bring back Google Reader and Shared Items, now that they’ve decided to dismantle Google+.