Fixing the Twitter feed

The saying used to be "Facebook is the people you have to follow, and Twitter is the people you want to follow". That's what made it great. 

No matter how much the world changes, you have a limited amount of time and attention. Twitter allowed you to be in control. It wasn't personal, it was about information and as a user I could shape how that information would be presented. The rules of engagement were simple - you follow someone, they post messages of 140 characters or less, the messages of all the people you followed were presented to you in a chronological order. 

Knowing how it all worked allowed each Twitter user to set up their feeds according to their own preferences. 

  • Someone posting too often and filling up your feed? Unfollow. 
  • Want to keep tabs on someone every once and a while but not all the time? Add them to a list. 
  • Want to follow a million people and never be able to keep up? Go crazy.

There was always room for Twitter to add some sponsored tweets to the feed and make some solid dough. I was delighted that the company went public and was actually able to make some good money by trading their stock as the price went up and down and up again. Wall Street couldn't grasp the potential but I was a believer and it seemed just a matter of time until the business model proved itself. Now it seems the company veered off course long ago and has lost their way. 

Now it isn't about following the people you want, presented according to rules you understand. It is what Twitter thinks you want presented to you in a way they're guessing you want it. The user doesn't have control.

Now I rarely check Twitter. It has been that way for at least a year. Why? Take a look at the image below. 

This is 30 minutes worth of tweets from a few weeks ago. On the left is the feed from my native iOS Twitter app & on the right is how the feed used to be and should be. Highlighted in red are Twitter's "recommendations", in green are the tweets I found interesting, and yellow is an ad. The grey stripes represent the viewable screen height within the app.

Even though some of the recommended tweets came from a few of my best friends and favorite tweeters, all 15 recommendations were not of any interest to me. 

The first tweet that I found interesting was the 3rd tweet chronologically... it was on the 4th page! That is a big problem. 

What's worse is this is a best case scenario... by default Twitter now suggests what they think are "the best Tweets first". I have this setting turned off, but when activated it just creates further chaos. The best analogy I have for this feature is a grocery store knowing what brands I like, what I might be interested in, and what I need to buy and gave me a full cart with their recommendations when I entered the store... making me sift through everything to get rid of all the stuff I don't want to buy that trip. Annoying and way more time intensive than starting with an empty cart.

In the "olden days", the first interesting tweet would have been showing up just as I started scrolling through the feed, and I'd find something else that would keep me engaged every 3-4 pages. Enough to keep me around to see more sponsored tweets and keep me addicted to the platform.

The Solution

So how does Twitter go about fixing their problem? I actually think it is pretty straight-forward.

1. Simplify the basic feed.

There are some interesting new features that I love within Twitter, such as inline quotes and removing links from the character limits, however the feed itself should go back to the old rules. Tweet by tweet in reverse-chronological order. Sometimes it is a little annoying or confusing when someone rattles off 10 messages in a mini-story, but at least the rules are understandable.

With a simplified feed, sponsored tweets can show up at a slightly increased frequency.

2. Move the concept of "discovery" below the tweet.

Discovering news, content, and personalities within Twitter is part of what makes it special. Instead of getting in the way, if features that allow users to go down a rabbit hole of discovery are moved out of the user's view, they will likely be used more often. 

Currently a user can click on a tweet to get more detail on that message (replies, access to links & media, etc) or they can click on an avatar to get more about that user... however there isn't a feature (that I'm aware of) to find out more related to a tweet or user. 

I would suggest a feature that allows a user to swipe a tweet to expose a "More" button. Clicking "More" would open up a bunch of Twitter's recommendations based on the content & author of the tweet. Twitter could generate all kinds of interesting feeds based on recommendations that the user is explicitly asking for with defined parameters. Not only would the feeds be more welcomed and relevant - so too would any sponsored content.

By giving control back to the user I think that Twitter can get back on the path to greatness.

Making use of your location

Within the past 6 months, location apps such as foursquare, Gowalla, and MyTown (not available in Canada) have become commonplace among the nerd/hipster/tech-savvy/social-marketing/iPhone crowd. They are so popular that maybe you are commonly asked what the point of it is. This is a fair question.

Originally, the point was to provide social people with a way to let their friends know where they were so they could meet up and have great times. For example, I tell my friends that I'm going out but haven't decided where... when I reach my destination I can 'check-in' and it automatically lets everyone know I'm at the Ship and Anchor, then they all join me there and we party. However, in order to make the experience more fun, these location apps added little games & gimmicks within the software (the accumulation of points, stuff to trade, imaginary governance over the establishments). This made the experience much more addictive, and since most of your real friends who you'd want to party with are not using these apps the original intent has kind of been lost.

Count me among the addicted. I use foursquare. I started using it as a way to log the places I went when I traveled, but I'm still using it here in Calgary. Oddly, I really like the idea of being mayor of all the places I frequent. I'm a nerd, sue me.

There are definitely privacy and other concerns with software like this. A while ago, someone illustrated this point with a web site called Please Rob Me - the premise was that if you've checked in somewhere other than you're home, then you are announcing that your home is empty and waiting to be robbed. The site isn't working anymore, but it was listing anyone that posted their check-ins to Twitter.

Those concerns aside, I am intrigued by the possibilities of these applications. As the use of the APIs from these platforms get to be used in mashups and other applications, I think that an app like foursquare will have the same impact on the customer review that Twitter had on the blog.


Blogging was already popular well before Twitter reared it's head (in fact, Twitter was co-founded by Evan Williams, who had created the Blogger platform), but with its emphasis on succinctness and digestibility Twitter actually supported the blogging community rather than replaced it. Publishers didn't have to come up with wordy articles every time they had an opinion and readers could get snippets of insight with a way to link through to more detail if it was available.

As someone who makes a living helping companies and people with their web presence, the advice that was commonly dispensed around blogging used to be "don't do it if you can't commit to posting something (anything) regularly". This was because you would want people to keep coming back, and infrequency would cause them to think that you'd gone away. With Twitter, the advice is closer to "always post something of value and don't piss people off". Of course, you're not always going to please everyone with every single tweet, but the point is that you create a following for yourself by adding to the person's day, not disrupting it. Most corporations and marketers are still figuring that whole thing out, but news-makers, celebrities, comedians, techno-geeks and regular people are creating some great content within 140 characters. If that's not enough, then posting extra information to a blog post and linking to it is the perfect solution.

With all the content and the incredible user base that resides within Twitter, a mess of other companies have chipped in with technology that is separate from Twitter, but enhances the platform. URL-shorteners like, image hosting services like Twitpic, search integration with Google & Bing, and mobile/desktop readers like Tweetie are examples of how the Twitter experience is enhanced beyond the confines of

The Customer Review & foursquare

The ability to post a customer review to the internet has fundamentally changed the way we, as consumers, research and buy products. Amazon, eBay and TripAdvisor are just a few examples of the importance of customer reviews. However, writing a review can be time consuming and if it's not part of my buying experience than I'm probably unlikely to post one. For example, I might be more willing to post a review when I've bought something online from Amazon and I go back to the site for something else, or they send me a follow up email prompting me to post a review.

I'm much less likely to go find a place to post a review for the coffee shop I go to twice a day (Caffe Beano) or the dumpy diner I go to every Sunday for reliable eggs benedict and a chance at being berated by an attractive waitress (Phil's). Places exist for reviews to be posted, so I wouldn't have to look long for a place to post my opinion. In fact, I rely on Yelp for their customer reviews of restaurants... I'm just not the type to go sit down and post reviews on every customer service experience I have.

This is where services like foursquare come in. Foursquare in and of itself is maybe somewhat pointless, but the fact that they make it Twitter-like (quick, easy, and somewhat addictive) to log where I go in a day, I unwittingly start to participate in a popularity contest that enhances the online customer review. If I go somewhere, I'm letting people know that I've experienced that place, if I go there multiple times I imply that I might like it, and if many other people go there it likely means that the place has something great about it.

If I'm searching Google for a nearby restaurant, it will mean something to me if I see that a friend has gone there many times and maybe posted a small tip like 'try the linguini'.

So now that foursquare & company have been around for a while, are there web sites out there that make use of this data? Yes. I've found a couple and I'm sure there are many more that exist and coming soon.

Sites That Use Location Data

The first one is from the image above. It's called Checkin Mania. It basically allows you to use Google Maps to see how many people have checked in with various location apps close to the area you specify.

Something similar, but perhaps a bit more valuable is FourWhere. This site only uses information from foursquare, but tells you how many people have checked in as well as user "tips". A tip in foursquare is like a mini-review. The interface needs a bit of work on this site, but it is a very cool concept.

Something that might be interesting for the foursquare user, but provides little value is a site called Where Do You Go which creates a heatmap out of all the places you have checked in to.

Coming Soon: Microsoft just announced that Bing will add a layer of foursquare information to Bing Maps.