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Tweet Science

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Illustration by Zohar Lazar

They call it an “information network.” “It did take a while to bring everybody around to that particular vision,” says Twitter co-founder Ev Williams. “Over the last year or so is when that started to be more clear publicly.”

But this revelation both simplified and complicated things. Where Facebook could keep aiming to be a comfortable place for people to hang out, Twitter’s job would be to broker a connection between an audience and the talent, while also paneling itself with lucrative advertising, unobtrusively enough that the audience would not tune out. And currently, neither audience nor talent nor, especially, advertisers are anywhere near where they need to be for Twitter to make good on the immense expectations under which it is laboring.

At Twitter, where anxiety and optimism are never far from one another, the leadership is surprisingly frank about these problems. To start with, the audience is alarmingly fickle. Nielsen estimated that user-retention rates were around 40 percent. Twitter was easy to use at an entry level, but after a while it was hard for some people to see the point. Twitter has claimed as many as 175 million registered users, but numbers leaked to the online news site Business Insider in March put the number of actual people using it closer to 50 million, correcting for dead and duplicate accounts, automated “bots” and spam.

“There’s this big gap, no doubt about it, between awareness of Twitter and engaged on Twitter,” says Dick Costolo, Twitter’s CEO, a former improv comedian whose bald head and square-framed glasses give him the look of a walking exclamation point. When I meet him, he comes dashing into a corner office, apologizing for having initially canceled our interview as the company raced to process a new round of financing, $400 million from the Russian billionaire and highly regarded venture capitalist Yuri Milner—more money, more pressure. Costolo, along with Dorsey, who was pushed out two years ago and then returned, Steve Jobs–like, to try to take the company to the next level, are in charge of keeping the people in their seats. “This is probably our biggest product challenge, and the thing that Jack and I talk about the most,” says Costolo.

The problem starts, he says, with an empty box. The box is on a user’s Twitter home page, where the company’s signature timeline is supposed to crawl down, overflowing with 140-character bon mots, witty and interesting and profound. But when you sign up, there’s nothing in it. It’s like turning on the TV and being confronted with a test signal.

“You sign up for Twitter, you see the empty timeline and a big ‘What’s happening?’ at the top,” Costolo tells me. “We need to bridge that gap between you sign up for Twitter and you’re staring at the white space and what do I do now?”

This by itself should not be a hard problem to solve. But by solving it—­gaining, or holding on to, users—Twitter will create the next big problem. Add a quantum leap in loquacious tweeters, and what you have is an unmanageable flow of tweets, only a few of which are of any interest—the rest of them so much cultural detritus floating by in the flood.

As it stands, Twitter’s interface has yet to mature beyond a chronology of tweets, from most recent to oldest, that necessarily drops people into the water without much context, forcing users to experience Twitter as a snapshot of comments and a somewhat random and not particularly useful list of “trending topics,” or to enter a search term in hopes that something pertinent or entertaining will emerge from the millions of tweets. “In general, a lot of what Twitter is is unstructured information,” an executive at Facebook tells me. This, in a sense, is a programming challenge.

Costolo, of course, phrases this critique in much more optimistic terms. “There’s this huge opportunity for us to surface all this great content,” he says, “and to allow people to discover what’s going on on Twitter.”

“Surfacing the content”—essentially, curating tweets for users—is a phrase you hear a lot at Twitter. It’s the solution to both the problem of the empty box and the opposite problem, the cluttered stream. It’s the project that Costolo and Dorsey, along with their third-floor computer wizards, are obsessively consumed with: matching Meghan McCain’s arachnophobic tweet with that subgroup of political junkies and spider enthusiasts who might want to read it.

This summer, Twitter reengineered its search engine so it would value the “influence” of its users to better organize search results—to automatically bring up what Brian Williams and Wolf Blitzer said about Libya as opposed to what somebody’s crackpot uncle or Richard Simmons said. Already, Twitter has tried to use interest-based “lists” to funnel people into thematic silos, an attempt to improve on the relatively primitive hashtag, the ubiquitous symbol for organizing ideas on Twitter. But unlike a news or social site, where authors and their data are clearly delineated, the Twitter experience is much more difficult to aggregate.


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