Cowritten by: Kimra McPherson and Joanne Wong
Not that we follow him or anything, but have you seen Channing Tatum’s new Twitter profile?
We wouldn’t normally have been scoping it out. But Tatum — along with First Lady Michelle Obama, Weezer, and a handful of other famous folks — was privy to an early rollout of the new Twitter profile page, which was officially announced on Tuesday after months of speculation (thank you Mashable).
The new layout enlarges your most popular tweets based on engagement: number of retweets, replies, likes, etc. The more popular a tweet, the more real estate it gets on your profile page. Twitter also rolled out a couple of new features, such as the ability to pin a tweet to the top of your page or filter tweets with images and videos. Many people compared the redesign to Facebook because of the expanded timeline photo you can customize.
What Does this Mean for Users?
As Twitter #addicts, our first reaction was fear. Twitter has become an indispensable source of news and communication for us, even replacing Google Reader as the easiest way to scan hundreds and hundreds of headlines in search of something interesting. Collectively, we (@_jwong and @kimretta) have tweeted nearly 17,000 times since Twitter began in March 2006 — averaging 6x a day! — and follow nearly 1,200 people in our streams (meaning we read A LOT of content). We were worried the new profile would mean big changes for the way Twitter looks and feels when we check it every day (or, OK, every hour … minute … whatever).
But as we looked more carefully at the changes, our fear turned to relief and curiosity. So far, none of the changes will actually affect how we experience Twitter, since neither of us really looks at our own profile pages — or, really, at other people’s profiles. (We might now, just to see what it’s like.)
Everything about the changes would indicate Twitter has hit a home run with brands and celebrities — those who are inherently more self-promotional. But we, and the majority of “active” Twitter users we talked to informally after this announcement, rarely look at someone’s profile and instead follow their 140-character musings in our timeline stream (or via an app that keeps us from visiting twitter.com anyway).
Why change the profile page experience at all? With this, Twitter is suddenly prioritizing a different part of the user experience — and maybe even a different user — than what we previously perceived as primary. They are making the experience more about YOU vs. more about the people you follow. They’re also enhancing the experience for someone who might go to Twitter only occasionally to see what a particular person or company has to say, versus those of us who use Twitter to follow many people’s bite-sized thoughts simultaneously.
This is quite a big difference. However, the Facebook-like personalization capabilities might invite a more “mainstream” crowd. After all, it worked for Facebook, right?
Let’s explore deeper.
Change always ruffles some feathers, but Twitter’s announcement on Tuesday was met with more anger than usual. To understand why, it’s important to understand how Twitter grew and why none of these changes should really surprise us. For this we dug out an “old” Wired article from 2009: Mob Rule! How Users Took Over Twitter.
As the article describes, Twitter really just began as a Yammer-like service where people could post short status updates. Its most salient features, the retweets and hashtags and ‘@’ mentions, were actually “invented” not by product managers but by Twitter’s earliest users, who needed a way to communicate better while still staying within the 140-character box. It’s probably safe to say that its founders weren’t sure how their product would be used. Or as the article puts it:
“Essentially, Twitter left a ball and a stick in a field and lurked on the sidelines as its users invented baseball.”
But even back then, it’s clear the founders wanted to get more users. By 2013, according to internal documents cited in the article, Twitter hoped to have one billion users. It’s 2014, and Twitter has just over 241 million users. In comparison, Facebook reached one billion users in 2012.
So, Now What?
All of this makes us wonder: Who is Twitter really designing for?
As Twitter tries to keep growing, is the company’s priority the users like the two of us, who use Twitter as a “front door” to links, jokes, conversations, and, yes, lunch pictures from our friends and favorite Internet personalities? Or will it be focusing more on the experience of folks who want to curate their own image or check in on celebrity profiles every now and then? And will the future of Twitter be designed from within, or can passionate users still dictate the company’s direction? We don’t know any of these answers yet.
Prioritizing the profile could be a relatively small design tweak — or, it could be a big signal of change at the heart of Twitter.