One flew over the Twitter nest – web goes cuckoo over missing button

14 Dec 2015

Publishers are going cuckoo over the loss of the Twitter share counter button - but is the social media player hatching a secret plan?

For a company that pretty much ignited the sharing economy, Twitter’s decision to eliminate its share counter feature seems a bit cuckoo. But, actually, this is the hatching of a whole new epoch in digital media with data being the golden egg at its core, writes John Kennedy.

To some, Twitter is a lifeline of information and communication with the wider world. To others, it is a hose pipe of data that never stops. Sometimes it is a heart-warming reminder of all the good things about people when they get behind a common cause or just help each other out, other times, when the trolls and bullies get busy, it shows you people at their lowest and meanest. To me, it is at times an angst machine, a nail-biting rollercoaster with dips and highs but views that will carry you as far as the mind’s eye can see. A glittering, shimmering thing of lights and thoughts of a world of people right here, right now.

Highs for me included #MarRef this year, when Ireland voted through marriage equality for people of the same sex, and you can’t beat the humour that accompanies events like the Late Late Toy Show or the Eurovision. Lows included being trolled.

Unlike other platforms that occupy the ‘social’ space, the funny thing about Twitter is you always remember where you were when it hits you – when Michael Jackson died or when US Special Forces took down Osama bin Laden. I even remember the very moment when we learnt that Twitter was locating its international headquarters in Dublin, fittingly enough via a tweet by IDA Ireland at around 6.30am on the morning of 26 September 2011. A Monday, just like today.

But is it a social media company? Is it a communications company? Is it a software company? Is it a media publishing platform? It is, in fact, all of those things combined, with media being the most common factor.

In fact, the biggest champion of Twitter has been the media, which felt a kinship with the quick-fire, rapid spreading of information that Twitter facilitates.

That’s why Twitter’s decision to eliminate its share counter feature, which showed you how many times a story has been shared from a website, indicates a turning point in Twitter’s future. For better or worse, it’s hard to say, but it has left publishers and bloggers scratching their heads. Because shares of stories were a barometer of effectiveness. Now stories that are performing look like they are not being shared, while some websites simply feature a  gap where publishers have just simply removed the former tweet counter button.

Questions as to whether the feature will return or be replaced by something better have been met by Twitter with a non-committal “no comment”.

Like a bird on a wire

Twitter is under pressure to meet shareholder expectations, grow user numbers and pull in advertising, the majority of which through mobile, and it is doing a pretty decent job of it. It went public last year, only adding to pressure to keep shareholders happy. However, one of the company’s longest-standing and steadiest CEOs Dick Costolo left this year to be replaced by former CEO and a co-founder Jack Dorsey, who is also CEO of another company that went public, Square.

While some may think the decision to remove the share counter and discomfit publishers that are the lifeblood of the information-sharing economy is crazy, it is important to think about Twitter in the context of all the changes it has been making in the past two years.

Everything from adding video capabilities, replacing Favourites with Likes and, last week, adding supersized photos, is designed to keep users on the site. It is also Twitter’s design to make it a proper social network, not just a media network, to make Twitter a place where you share your personal life experiences and more.

However, this is exactly the space that Facebook and, increasingly, Instagram, occupies.

And that’s why removing the share counter is barmy in this context.

You just can’t choose to fight a war on too many fronts. Twitter simply can’t beat Facebook with its 1.5bn monthly users, nor can it beat YouTube in video or Instagram in photography. Taking on Facebook? It should be asking itself does it want to compete in the market for baby pictures.

At its core, Twitter should never lose the inestimable value it has for the spreading of news and all kinds of media in real-time. Yes, by all means serve your audience well, but please don’t forget to play to your strengths. And that means being of value to publishers who provide the content that gets shared in real time.

Is this decision cuckoo?

There are many who would hope it is a temporary decision, but I think it is possibly permanent, with Twitter working harder on building a robust and solid infrastructure for all media to be shared. It is not the counting that matters, but the ease with which sharing can occur.

Twitter group product manager Michael Ducker explained it was a hard decision to make and that actually the share counter button’s existence was almost accidental and never considered permanent.

“The count was built in a time where the only button on the web was from Twitter. Today, it’s most commonly placed among a number of other share buttons, few of which have counts.

“Additionally, the ‘count API’ has never existed as part of our public, supported and documented API endpoints; it was only intended for use by our own web widgets. We’ve often cautioned in our developer forums that use of such undocumented endpoints shouldn’t be relied upon, as we cannot commit to supporting them.”

What may happen next is Twitter may create new revenue through its Gnip data business and some reports have suggested that Twitter may charge publishers $300 a month to get accurate data about sharing of articles, videos and more. Some may pay for this, but most won’t, and forget about bloggers affording it.

So what is Twitter’s game?

Catch the data pigeon

Two summers ago, I had the privilege of visiting Twitter’s headquarters on Market Street in San Francisco. It was a Friday in the sweltering heat of June and as young engineers sat in the sun with laptops on a very roomy terrace in what is a former furniture wholesale building, I took in the sights around me and tried to delve into the culture at Twitter. A vast auditorium near the canteen was being prepared, mics being checked and neat rows of chairs being assembled. I asked what was happening.

On Friday evenings across San Francisco and Silicon Valley, lots of businesses from start-ups to accelerators try to end the week with perspective and insight. Some gather round and have a few beers, for example, celebrate successes, question failures, but try to ultimately end the week on a good note, prepared for the next week with a shared purpose and vision.

At Twitter, Friday evenings end with a thing called a Town Hall where hundreds of staff are told how the company performed and have a chance to ask questions about what went right and what went wrong. While I was obviously ushered out before it began, I was impressed with this culture and the willingness to tackle success and failures head-on in an open forum.

This was a culture at odds with Twitter’s chaotic early days in its short nine-year history. The company has done a lot of growing up and there are a lot of serious, talented minds hard at work at creating an enduring product.

From the get-go, Twitter hatched accidentally. It was created in March 2006 when Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, Evan Williams and Noah Glass, then working at a podcasting company called Odeo, were working on a side project then just known as twttr that used SMS to communicate with a small group of friends. It began as an internal messaging service but eventually its founders knew what they had.

But also from the get-go, Twitter’s history has been pockmarked by a musical chairs of CEOs, falling outs, ambiguity about product direction and, ultimately, a struggle to define precisely what it is.

If Twitter was indeed the first “button” on the web, that baton was quickly grasped by Facebook, which owes a lot its enormous success to the ubiquitous ‘Like’ button.

So what is Twitter up to? Could it soon roll out a new button modelled on its own heart-shaped ‘Like’ button? Will it instead stick to the knitting of building a robust infrastructure for all kinds of content to be shared, or will it emphasise its future as a data company by providing insights at a price?

At this point, only Twitter knows, and the answer could be all of the above. But in the quick-fire nature of media today, leaving publishers out of the conversation at a time when Apple and Facebook are shaping up to be the front pages of tomorrow’s news, losing the counter feature could be counterintuitive.

Keep counting those eggs, Twitter.

Cuckoo clock image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years