Breaking the Rules and Still Winning: Twitter’s Je Ne Sais Quoi

When I was in grad school our professor gave us an assignment. Our papers had to be within a set word count. Nearly all of us diligently stayed within that rule, constraining our analysis as best we could. But not one classmate. He blew right through the word count restriction. When the professor discussed our papers the next day, he called out this student’s paper as the best of the lot. We all learned two things that day:

  1. Ignore this professor’s word count restrictions in the future
  2. Rules don’t matter if you create something people love

Twitter is going through its toughest stretch ever right now. Here’s a FriendFeed search on the phrase “twitter is dead to me“. And here’s Steve Isaacs’ thoughts on the current Twitter:

I expect Twitter to be 1) reliable = epic fail. 2) Something more than a simple one way alerting medium = fail 3) to grow and mature like all great web services = also a fail. Am I being too hard, I think not.

Pretty grim, eh?

Well, not so bad. Several big names have recently stated their new interest in FriendFeed in lieu of Twitter. But read these comments closely, and tell me that these guys have really given up on Twitter:

The beautiful thing about Twitter is that spontaneous, diverse conversations erupt that are almost synchronous, or chat like – Michael Arrington, in post praising FriendFeed over Twitter

I’m steering people to FriendFeed, can’t help it. My discussions are happening there. And bonus: It pisses off Steve Gillmor. 🙂 – Dave Winer

Really tired of Replies being broken here. Spending more time in FF, but still subscribing only to close friends over there. – Shel Israel

There are others. These are people who are practically being dragged away from their favorite social media app.

Their words say FriendFeed, but their hearts say Twitter.

And this is what I mean. Let’s look at the rules Twitter has broken.

Rule #1: Build a scalable platform

Well, this is the crux of the current problem, so clearly they messed this one up. Google didn’t mess this one up. didn’t. eBay didn’t. Yahoo didn’t.

Twitter did.

Rule #2: Communicate with your users

For the most part over the last several months, communication has been via the Fail Whale. Not a lot of feedback to the loyal users about the problems. And when features are removed, it doesn’t seem to be communicated correctly.

Dave Winer noted that Twitter’s own employees are not among the power users of Twitter. The shoemaker’s children go barefoot.

Rule #3: Web 2.0 companies actively add features

A hallmark of hosted web 2.0 services is they constantly roll out new features as they get feedback from users.

Not Twitter. They rely on a robust ecosystem of developers to take care of that. Twitter users relied on a member of that ecosystem,, while they took down the Replies tab this past week.

Rule #4: Web companies need realistic paths toward profitability

And that generally means advertising. But not Twitter, at least not yet. Profitability shmofitability. But to be fair, when you see YouTube picked up by Google without revenue, and Powerset purchased by Microsoft without revenue, you realize this is a rule that is getting relaxed more and more.


But Twitter’s Got that Je Ne Sais Quoi

Dave Winer appears to be twittering about as much as he always has. He has also started to engage folks on FriendFeed as well, as a look at his comments there shows. But Twitter got its Replies feature back Saturday, causing Dave to wonder:

Now that Replies are back, we get to find out if our fling with FF is the real thing, or just a summer love.

And here’s a sampling of FriendFeed comments on his tweet:

  • “Twitter is the Cliff Notes of Friendfeed. Quick and easy & you get the gist.”
  • “For me, it’s like friends with benefits and evaporates when my true love returns.”
  • “Twitter is my Best Friend… Friend Feed is my Book Club… there’s more ‘deep conversation’ over here – but I don’t always want every conversation to either be non-existent or terribly deep. Sometimes I just want to twitter like a little bird.”
  • “I like FF – I love Twitter – FF needs to be organized differently, I think – it doesn’t have the right logical setup for me.”
  • “I’m sure people will complain about twitter when it fails to work, but when they manage to kick themselves and make it work, people will flock back”

This comment from Arrington’s FriendFeed-favorable TechCrunch post captures it for me:

I will stick with Twitter for now, because even though about half of my tweets are @ replies, I don’t really use it for _conversation_ per se – more like spontaneous short IM chats that end in ❤ tweets and involve 2-3 people. Don’t need an entirely different website to “manage” that.

Twitter’s got that new funding including Jeff Bezos, they’ve got heavyweights rooting for them (e.g. Arrington’s “Twitter!” post) and loyal users who are sticking with them despite the limited functionality.

Twitter also has going for it the same asset that helped AOL through its downtime crisis in the late 1990s. If you were on AOL, you had all your email connections there. Switching costs were high. Same thing applies to Twitter. Social network switching costs are high, a point recently made by Corvida.

Here’s what I predict will happen. The new architecture is built. New features will be added (threading tweets, Seesmic-like video conversations, etc). There will be an avalanche of positive coverage: “Twitter’s Back!” And it will continue its growth trajectory after a 9-month rocky road.

Twitter…breaking all the rules and living to tell about it.


See this post on FriendFeed: