On Twitter’s Underrated Value as a Utility, and How it Could be Used to Stimulate Growth
Here’s what’s most frustrating about Twitter, from a user and fan’s perspective – it seems that their focus is all wrong. Or maybe not all wrong – no doubt they’ve looked at the data and modeled the ideal audience they need to reach in order to promote growth. But Twitter still seems hooked on being the “cool” app, the place all the kids should would to hang out. But Twitter’s old in social media terms. Yet the platform seems intent on refusing to grow up.
Of course, that could be perfectly logical, maybe the only way for Twitter to grow its user base and secure its future growth is by appealing to the next generation, but in doing so, they seem to be losing touch with the evolving value of their business. Where Facebook has adapted and shifted to accommodate all different kinds of user behavior, and to becoming a bigger, more influential player in the “grown up” media world, Twitter, to some degree at least, is still stuck on trending topics and hashtags.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Twitter, which is now ten years old, could be well served by recognizing that their audience has grown up with them, and that they're well-placed to cater to those maturing needs and interests. And what’s more, the practical use cases for Twitter in such applications are significant, and go beyond simply being an aggregator of media content.
Here are some examples of what I mean.
Earlier this month, Twitter’s Data Blog published a post which looked at how the USGS Texas Water Science Center uses fully autonomous Twitter accounts to track rainfall levels and ensure the relevant communities remain aware of the potential for floods in the region.
As you can see, each tweet contains a unique, searchable hashtag and specific information about current water levels, helping people affected areas to stay informed.
A representative from USGS explained the logic behind using Twitter for this purpose:
“In some flood situations people lost electrical power, so their only form of communication was through their mobile devices. We realized we could leverage social media tools, like Twitter, to distribute current streamflow and precipitation data during flood events to help connect people with vital information when they needed it the most.”
That’s pretty ingenious – Twitter, better than any other platform, is perfect this type of wide-scale, real-time distribution of information, important data which can be accessed by anyone, not just by subscribers to a certain service and not to people who’ve called a certain number.
There are, of course, various examples of how Twitter data can be used for similar purposes, including tracking flood damage and monitoring earthquake activity. But this one, in particular, highlights how Twitter can not only be used for data insights, but may actually be able to stimulate platform growth through the implementation of more utility-focused programs. Imagine if Twitter had a similar program to this in all areas of the world? That’s a lot of people who’d suddenly have significant motivation to want to sign up and use the platform. Imagine they weren’t just tracking water levels, but air pollution (as they do in the UK), traffic delays, speed camera locations – the list goes on.
The character constraints of Twitter mean the messaging, by necessity, needs to be short, and the open nature of the platform ensures that the information presented can be accessed by anyone, not just those who an algorithm decides want to see it. If Twitter could show how that capacity can be extremely valuable – both for sharing information and for tracking longer term trends – that would go a long way towards taking the app from being a confusing hipster platform to a serious utility.
And again, no other platform can match Twitter on this front.
Here’s a similar example – in another blog post published by Twitter this week, the platform’s UK arm outlined their new partnership Transport for London, through which, commuters will be automatically alerted to severe delays on key London Underground and TfL rail services as soon as they occur, helping them to avoid disruption.
“The innovative pilot, developed exclusively with Twitter, will allow anyone who follows any combination of four existing TfL Twitter feeds (London Overground, TfL Rail, Central line and District line) to be able to opt-in to receive instant notifications about severe disruption.”
Through this program, commuters will get notifications sent direct to their mobile devices as a direct message once they opt-in to the service. People will also be able to tailor their notifications by selecting the time periods that they would like to receive alerts, meaning they can avoid unnecessary alerts outside of commuting hours or at weekends, when they don’t need them.
And the program may actually be particularly relevant in the UK, where, stats show, one in three commuters are already active on the platform.
The UK program has similarities to another initiative Twitter facilitates in India, where commuters can tweet their starting location and destination to @TransportDelhi to get a full rundown on their best transport options, including traffic and weather considerations.
Both programs, again, focus on Twitter as a utility, as opposed to a media company – but that, of course, is no where near as sexy. Breaking real-time news is where the real excitement around Twitter lies, being the place you need to be to stay up with the latest news from Kanye or the latest zinger from Donald Trump.
But then again, those elements are clearly not enough to get more people to the platform. Information spreads so fast across social media these days that you don’t really need to be on Twitter to get such insights, they’ll be over on Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram soon enough. In this sense, maybe it would be better for Twitter to put more focus on programs like these to underline the connective potential of the platform – not as a source of breaking news, but as a source of essential, locally relevant, information.
And if Twitter becomes valuable enough for that purpose, no doubt people will come to rely more on it and bring others to it, and from that, maybe Twitter can boost engagement without having to come up with flashy new options like Moments that aim to wow the underwhelmed masses.
Taking such initiatives even further, the town of Jun in Spain has made Twitter the primary communications channel for anyone seeking to get in touch with local government officials.
As noted by The New York Times:
“By incorporating Twitter into every aspect of daily life — even the local school’s lunch menu is sent out through social media — this Spanish town has become a test bed for how cities may eventually use social networks to offer public services.”
I would amend that statement from “social networks” to “Twitter” specifically, as, again, there’s no other network that would enable Jun to communicate in the same way. As noted by Jun’s Mayor José Antonio Rodríguez Salas, “Everyone can speak to everyone else, whenever they want”. Even if you had a specific Facebook group, it would still require all the relevant people to sign up and be approved. On Twitter, the conversation is open, making it a great fit for such communications.
Admittedly, Jun’s biggest advantage in this regard may be its tiny population – the town is home to only 3,500 people – but the Twitter system works by increasing transparency and enabling all residents to stay informed. You see a broken streetlight, you tweet the relevant Twitter handle to get it fixed. Quick, simple, visible to all.
Of course, Twitter is well aware of cases like Jun (former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo visited the town last Summer) and the other use-cases noted above were highlighted by Twitter themselves, so they're more than aware of the platform’s potential in this regard. But every time I see a data visualization like this one from Twitter:
Twitter has such great potential as a connective platform – and granted, they have a huge range of different audiences they’re looking to appeal to, so it’s hard to criticize their efforts from the outside. But given the potential for tweets to play such a significant role in keeping people updated on a wide scale, it would seem like that could be an ideal opportunity for Twitter to partner with relevant organizations and promote the platform as a utility service – and that, in turn, could lead to more people coming to the platform and growing their overall audience.
Maybe that’s part of the motivation behind Twitter’s recent App Store change from a “Social Media” app to the “News” category.
Similar to the views expressed by many others, Twitter, to me, seems to have lost its way a little bit, it doesn’t appear to know what it wants to be when it grows up. While Facebook is on a mission to “Connect the World”, a guiding principle which defines all their initiatives, the closest purpose Twitter seems to have come up with is “Refine and Simplify the Product” - which is less a mission statement and more a point of order.
And while such points are necessary as a priority focus for growing their company, it feels like Twitter just doesn’t have that clear “why” of their existence. Why does Twitter exist? What does Twitter provide? Why is that important? Real time information is valuable, no doubt, and Twitter definitely should continue to highlight and focus on building that element of their service, but maybe their real “why” exists in becoming the provider of relevant, local, real-time updates, for everyone.
It’d be an ambitious challenge for sure, but as Facebook looks to bots to deliver more timely, relevant and personalized information via Messenger, Twitter could also seek to compete, and build a whole new audience based on what the service is already best-suited to provide.
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