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June 30th, 2015 TWITTER none Comments

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Twitter latest moves are putting at risk its loyal user base.

In recent weeks, Dick Costolo stepped down from his role as Twitter chief executive officer, leaving Twitter’s original founder, Jack Dorsey, as interim chief. Costolo’s swan song is Project Lightning, a curated news and media service, designed to highlight breaking news and events in a beautiful new layout and story mode.

Project Lightning is still a few months away, but according to Buzzfeed’s Mat Honan, it will be aimed squarely at Twitter’s casual user, even the non-user. And that may be Twitter’s biggest problem. Nine years after launching, Twitter is still trying to decide what it is, and who its most valuable customers are.

Project Lightning is focusing on breaking news and events, the kind of thing Twitter does better than any other service. Honan explains “So, for example, while you might see Ellen DeGeneres’ tweets from the Grammys in a curated Grammys event, you would not actually begin following her if you were not already. When the Grammys end, so do the tweets. In other words, you automatically unfollow an event at its conclusion.”

Jack Dorsey is serving as Twitter's interim chief executive officer image www.socialselect.net

Jack Dorsey is serving as Twitter’s interim chief executive officer.

Writes Sarah Frier of Bloomberg, “With separate channels for events happening in real time, Twitter will be able to curate photos, videos and updates for an audience whether they have an account or not, using a mix of human editors and algorithms. That could appeal to people who don’t want to go through the trouble of setting up an account and figuring out who to follow.”

As impressive as Project Lightning sounds, I’m worried about what it suggests Twitter sees as the future of the company. By targeting non-users so heavily, it feels as though Twitter has given up on growing its user base, or nurturing its most passionate, active users. Instead it seems they’re focusing on improving the experience for people who may never sign up for a Twitter account.

It seems there are two very distinct versions of the product known as Twitter. First, there’s the Twitter most people see, let’s call that “Lightning Twitter”. Lightning Twitter that exists anywhere.

Outgoing Twitter chief Dick Costolo image www.socialselect.net

Outgoing Twitter chief Dick Costolo.

Lightning Twitter appears as scrolling text along your television during ABC TV’s Q&A. It is the Twitter that is embedded in news stories and listicles of “top tweets” about #LoveWins (the hashtag used during the recent US Supreme Court marriage equality ruling). For most people, they probably see more than enough of this thing called Twitter – Project Lightning aims to make seeing these tweets a little nicer, possibly a little more interactive.

Then there’s the second Twitter, the Twitter of core, passionate users – let’s call them part of Nerd Twitter. Nerd Twitter mutes the #qanda hashtag because it interrupts our Monday night. We’re not invited to the Grammys, so our tweets are mainly ignored by the press. But we love Twitter, we’ve been evangelising the product for years. We’ve held meetups around Twitter, dragged our friends and colleagues onto the service, formed long-lasting friendships, perhaps even found our spouse thanks to Twitter. We’re more active on it than we are on Facebook or any other social media service – even though the service has mainly ignored us for years.

These two identities puts Twitter in a difficult position. It cannot build a business around Nerd Twitter alone. Or at least, it cannot build a business at the scale Twitter’s shareholders want. I’m sure too, it is much more exciting to work for Lightning Twitter, the company that topples dictators, celebrates human rights and takes selfies with Ellen.

I understand why Twitter has ignored the nerds, my nerds, for so long. I would just love a few signs from Twitter that we still matter to the company.

Project Lightning reminds me of a similar idea Twitter had to promote tweets and events to its casual users — the Discover tab. In January this year, the service launched filled with tweets and trending items from all Twitter users, not just the users you were following. Twitter shut down the Discover tab in April. Perhaps Discover never took off because it was never embraced by the Nerd Twitter crowd. We could never become evangelists for it, because we were never given a chance.

The Discover tab was a great idea. I loved the way it surfaced stories and tweets I would’ve otherwise missed. Unfortunately, I rarely saw the Discover tab, as I rarely access Twitter through the official apps. I to use Tweetbot on iOS and Mac, Fenix on Android. And third-party Twitter apps never had access to the Discover tab.

It’s a long story, too long for this article, but Twitter has had a tumultuous history with third-party apps and services. Some were cut off in their prime, thanks to a “token limit” imposed on them by Twitter. Twitter more recently starved third-party clients of some of its best new features, like native sync, muting and group conversations in direct messages, to drive more users to the official Twitter apps. I wonder then, will third-party apps see Project Lightning?

Opening up Project Lightning, along with Twitter’s other recent improvements, would go a long way to making us poor old Nerd Twitter users feel a little more loved by the company we love. And Twitter can only ignore its core Nerd user base for so long.

I hope Project Lightning does make Tweets more dynamic for less hardcore users, and even for users like me, seeing tweets embedded in articles. I would just love to see Project Lightning open to third party apps too. If this change is as big as Twitter is suggesting, I hope Twitter can bring along its most passionate users.

Peter Wells is a technology commentator who works in IT at UNSW Australia

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Henry Sapiecha