Twitter’s Finally Worth It

Speaking as an ex-employee

Working at Twitter was a great experience, but one aspect of it was really strange. Every time someone heard I worked there, they’d get the same bashful expression and say the same thing. “I’m sorry, I don’t use Twitter.”

“Don’t apologise!” I’d say. “Most people don’t use Twitter. It’s actually a pretty niche service and that’s something we’re working on.” Then, convinced I wasn’t going to get mad at them or proselytise, they’d all say the same things. They tried it, but it was confusing. Or none of their friends were on it. Or they heard it was toxic.

But I like Instagram!” they’d chirp.

And I get it. I jumped on the Twitter bandwagon at the very beginning, ran literally dozens of different Twitter accounts, and ended up working there. But despite all of that, I could never recommend the service to others. Too confusing. Too toxic. Too cliquey. There’s good stuff, but you need to rummage through a lot of bad stuff to find it. The ROI was bad.

But big things have changed recently, and I’m really excited about it.

I saw some data in 2014 that said the average Twitter user took about three years for their timeline to get to a healthy place. Some of my coworkers called this space between new user and healthy users the “trough of sorrow.” This is where everyone churned out, so we spent a lot of time on it.

Sites like TikTok get a lot of well-deserved credit for serving up super relevant videos in your newsfeed. And the more you watch, the better they get at understanding your tastes, which makes the product super sticky. Back in the day, Twitter didn’t have any of that fancy technology. Instead, they just recommended famous people’s accounts to you.

Which is why a large part of Twitter’s audience was left to sift through posts from Anil Dash and Shaq. I love Anil, but if that’s your Twitter experience, you’re probably going to leave and never come back.

A lot of interesting news is short term. For example, you might be interested in Super Bowl news for one day, but that doesn’t mean you want to permanently follow a bunch of Superbowl content. For many years, Twitter didn’t allow that kind of short term follow, which severely limited the places where Twitter could shine.

Many Twitter early adoptors like me loved the reverse chronological timeline. Person X would say a thing at 12:02pm, person Y would say something at 12:03pm, and it would all show up in a predictable, time-based order. But this meant that great content would get buried under an avalanche of poor content. It was a real problem.

We saw in the data that the vast, vast majority of people didn’t like the time-based timeline beacuse they felt overwhelmed by all the content. They asked for ways to bubble the best stuff to the top. And so we did.

But we resisted the change for years because the vocal early adopters, and when we made the change they were outraged. Some are still mad, but sorry, the data on this one is pretty clear.

Over the years I was there, this became a pattern. Every idea that would make the product better would be bitterly argued against by the early adopters. But when we did our homework, and looked beyond the vocal minority to make a new feature, we’d see clear signals in the data that it resonated. So we’d put on our helmets, deal with a few days of outrage, then watch the product improve. This happened again and again.

Today’s experience is fundamentally better than at any other time in Twitter’s history. (Don’t @ me) Here’s what I experience when I go there now:

  • Instead of a three year trough of sorrow where it’s hard to find good content, onboarded users immediately see content they might enjoy. You don’t even need to follow anyone. And @Shaq and @anildash no longer represent the cutting edge of recommended content. It’s not as good at TikTok yet, but it’s much better, and getting better all the time.
  • I believe that Twitter’s move to Moments was the single biggest product leap forward in the company’s entire history. Instead of easily-gamed trending content, the company embraced curated editorial content, topics, and short term events, all hooked up to cortex, the machine learning brain making sense of it all. I think the Twitter Moments team saved and redefined the company.
  • I can flip open Twitter and know that good content will greet me. I know that when I see content I don’t want to see, I can mute keywords or people. (This is a fairly new feature, and makes a huge difference.) Reporting has never been faster (but still has a ways to go, of course), and enforcement of the rules has never been more consistent (while still needing to improve).

I think sometimes people get stuck confusing “better” with “perfect.” Twitter has never been better than it is right now. You see it in the raw numbers, and increasingly I can see it in my personal experience on the platform. That doesn’t make it perfect, of course. But the trend is going in the right direction.

This was the meeting where we prioritised muting keywords, hiding replies, improving reporting, and notification filters. Every one of these features shipped, even the one that took three years.

When our VP of design left, he said something like “I put all my energy into this job. For those staying on longer than me, please keep fighting the good fight as long as you can.” I felt the same way when I left. I still want the product to be better, in so many ways, and I hoped the people staying behind would stay and put in the work to move things forward. And many did!

A lot of my favourite Twitter employees are still there, which is a big deal for a company as chaotic and publicly criticised as Twitter. When I press the magnifying glass, I can see AL’s work. When I use anything media, I see PS. Anything visual, I see ST. The web experience, AF. They’re still there, fighting hard, and notching real wins. That’s amazing, and impressive, and I’m so glad they’re still there to fight the good fight.

I don’t think the company could afford changing its mind and churning through talent much longer, so people who stuck around are how Twitter finally found its footing and its direction. Because of them, Twitter is finally worth it. It’s getting better every day.

And there’s so much more to do.

I love building things.

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