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Twitter’s Nonsensical Onboarding Process Suggests Tech Companies Should Hire Some Professional Behaviorists

Owen Williams wrote an insightful post called “Signing up for a new Twitter account shows why the company is struggling to grow” that’s a must-read whether you’re a social media enthusiast, a digital marketer, or a tech startup investor. He breaks down the process of signing up for a new Twitter account on desktop and mobile in explicit detail, and in effect shows how ineffective or even somewhat bizarre some of the on-boarding choices are.

I won’t recap the process because Owen did such an awesome job — just read his article and check out the screenshots. But it’s clear that whatever all the employees of Twitter are doing, very few are thinking about the first experience a new user has with their brand.

Like Owen, I’ve been using Twitter since 2008. I have tweeted more than 50,000 times (!), gained over 30,000 followers, and overall I have gotten tremendous personal value from it in the form of new connections, readers, feedback, offers, new friends, and more. Twitter is unquestionably valuable if you go through the journey of reading about it, experimenting with it, optimizing it, and using it constantly. The people who gain the most from it are continuous learners with a lifehacking mentality.

Unfortunately for Twitter, it’s not just a cool “community service” for super-enthusiasts like Owen and I who want to find out where Gary Vaynerchuk is hanging out at SXSW anymore. It could have been. It could have become an open source resource. It could have become a non-profit to help the world communicate. It could have been any number of things.

But. Twitter’s leaders and investors made the decision to be a “real” company, to sell ads to major corporations and do major collaborations with entities like the World Cup and the White House, and to become a publicly-traded corporation that needs to grow and add value for shareholders. With those choices come new responsibilities, among them getting more people to join and use their platform and like it. But user growth isn’t nearly what it could be. And its greatest “innovations” like @ replies and #hashtags were invented by users, not Twitter employees.

The irony is that new accounts can actually have huge value to users very quickly if done right. For all my tweets and followers and consistency over six years, I am getting way, way less engagement on my @cheeky_geeky account than I used to in 2008 or 2009. (Around the end of 2008, I was one of the top 100 most-followed people on Twitter, and one of the top 50 most retweeted users.) Right now, I’m probably at an all time low. The community and its users have changed. The rules have changed. Now, I’m not running a business through my personal account and I’m happy with what it is. But people are finding things less, clicking through less, retweeting less.

But. But. I have another account. A semi-secret account. It’s only about one topic, a very niche topic, something I want to do more about with in the future. And what’s amazing about that account is that I follow and am followed by only people who are super-enthusiasts about this little topic and there’s a ton of engagement. I can leave and come back two weeks later with one tweet and I’ll see, say, 6 high-quality re-tweets and comments (I only have about 200 followers). These are the kind of people who would click through and read something at high rates, or participate in a Kickstarter on my niche topic, or buy something about the topic from me.

Because I’ve been using Twitter so long and work in tech and media and know a bunch about the space, I have some natural advantages when it comes up to launching a social media play on a niche topic. What Twitter needs to figure out is how to on-board a tech-naive high school kid, or a retiree, or a newly unemployed person to do the same thing.

As a person whose background is in the behavioral sciences, one thing that’s always surprised me is the lack of behaviorists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and the like at tech companies and consulting firms who claim to care about influence, user engagement, social interaction and so on. What do you think influence and social interaction and stuff is? It’s just people interacting with each other. It turns out there are lots of scientists who know a lot about that.

Sure, code is important. Designers are important. MBA’s are important. But it seems like if companies like Twitter that depend on positive user experiences, habitual use of product, and user interactions which add value want to grow and thrive, they might consider devoting more resources to actually studying the “human terrain” of people and how and why they behave the way they do.

Tangentially related: ‘A Dark Room’, the incredibly engaging, best-selling iPhone game that no one can entirely explain.

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The Five Features I Wish Twitter Would Give Me

This post was originally published on Huffington Post Tech on July 19, 2012. Two years later, Twitter has gone public, but I’m still waiting for most of these features.

After six years or so, Twitter hasn’t changed much.

The core user experience of Twitter was, and is, the following: Put cursor in box, type 140 characters or less, push send. It’s a brief way of expressing yourself.

Sure, there have been some innovations. But the really great stuff everyone commonly knows about was invented by users, not by the company:

  1. The origin of replies using the format @[username] came about through experimentation by users working for Yahoo in the UK during late 2006.
  2. Hashtags on Twitter were invented by Chris Messina in late 2007.
  3. URL shortening (which was necessary to stay within 140 character limits) actually predates Twitter by a few years, and got a huge boost because of it (think: TinyURL and Bit.ly).

It’s true that one can do more sophisticated things with Twitter, but for most users, this is what they use and see, whether they fill in the Twitter box on a desktop, a tablet, or a phone. You can even tweet via text messages.

This simplicity is a blessing and a curse. Typing @[username] might make sense to some people, but it’s kinda nerdy. The concept of hashtagging your comment about a TV show with metadata may or may not go completely mainstream. It works, but it’s kind of like using DOS. It was great when it came out, but the desktop platform evolved. Where’s the “Windows” evolution of my real-time information platform?

Twitter is in the process of defining themselves as a company. It seems to the outside world that they want to monetize themselves mainly through advertising, a choice that may run counter to providing the best features for users and incentives for a robust developer ecosystem. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Unlike Facebook, which seemingly launches a new feature or tweak every week or so, and Tumblr and Pinterest, which are extremely simple, visual, and user-friendly, Twitter’s changes over the years have not made me feel more powerful, reach more people, understand more information, and get more done. And I say this as a huge fan of Twitter who’s tweeted about 10 times a day consistently for the last four years or so.

I’d like some new features. They’re not even that complicated. But they are user-centric and along the lines of what a more “open” Twitter information ecosystem would look like.

As a long-time, frequent “customer” of Twitter, here are the five features I wish Twitter would give me:

1. Make 100% of my tweets, dating back to my first one regardless of when I started, easily available, searchable, and exportable in multiple formats. (This is too geeky.)

2. Give me a simple but powerful analytics tool so I can better understand things like day of week I tweet most, who retweets me the most, who my influential followers are, click through rates on my links, and so on. I would be happy to pay a monthly fee for this. (Seems like this is coming someday, but I have no idea when.)

3. Allow me to do anything I want with accounts I’m following or who follow me: mass unfollowing, sorting, exporting, and other things to understand my personal Twitter community. (It shouldn’t be this hard.)

4. Provide me with a consistent, fully functional user experience across all form factors and operating systems. It’s not uncommon for someone to use, say, a Windows 7 PC, an iPad, and a Blackberry in the same day. (The experience is currently inconsistent.)

5. I would like to see more speed and more visual options to help me look at real-time streams, follow multiple hashtags or people at once, set tweets in different layouts, and other things. (TweetGrid has been doing a lot of this for years, for free; I use it all the time.)

I have one final request.

It isn’t a feature, but in some ways it’s more important than anything I wrote above. As a regular, consistent Twitter user for years, I’d like a clear mission statement from the company, and technology that reflects it. According to their website, Twitter is:

a real-time information network that connects you to the latest stories, ideas, opinions and news about what you find interesting. Simply find the accounts you find most compelling and follow the conversations.

I think that’s great. Help me do it better, Twitter.

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You Worry About Powerful Registered Lobbyists; I’ll Worry About Powerful Unregistered Non-Lobbyists

Today the Washington Post ran a story about how the Obama administration will bar registered lobbyists from sitting on the nearly 1,000 advisory panels to the Federal government. These are panels of subject matter experts with named like the Defense Science Board who conduct studies that the government doesn’t have time to perform, and provide subject-matter expertise the government doesn’t necessarily have.

These new rules about lobbyists sitting on Federal advisory panels will be ineffective at “curbing negative influence” on the government for at least two reasons.

One, lobbying firms will find simple ways around the new rules. They will change people’s job descriptions, alter the number of hours they spend lobbying on behalf of clients, and other maneuveurs to make employees eligible for advisory panels under the new rules, in cases where it is important. Tom Daschle is the ultimate example of effectively lobbying without being an actual registered lobbyist. New people will also be hired as non-lobbyists to sit on these boards in situations where it makes sense to have a presence on them.

Two, unregistered non-lobbyists can be just as influential, devious, and self-interested as registered lobbyists. There are many people who have all kinds of special interests that do and will sit on these boards, and they will use the information they glean from them in ways that may help the country, but may also help them. And a great many of these people work in the private sector. Is there anything wrong with that? Not necessarily, it’s just that it’s not much different than what lobbyists do. And more dangerously, an unregistered non-lobbyist is much closer to a wolf in sheep’s clothing – you don’t see them coming until it’s too late.

My biggest problem with stories like these is that they report the ‘action’ (ban lobbyists) but spend little if any time talking about the ‘reaction’ (skirting the rules to get what you want anyway). But the reaction is at least as important, if not more so. Stories like the one in the Post make me think of a terrorist who defeats a billion dollar spy satellite with a baseball cap.

In government, in business, in life, when the action is high-effort and the reaction is low-effort, it’s a loser.

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When Did Government Become a Business?

When did government become a business? I keep hearing government called a business, and business terms like “efficiency” creeps into the lexicon here among progressive Washington folk. Sorry, government is not a business any more than the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, or a public high school. Yes, they have some things in common, but so what? Governments do not even meet the most basic definition of a business. From Wikipedia:

A business is a legally recognized organization designed to provide goods and/or services to consumers. Businesses are predominant in capitalist economies, most being privately owned and formed to earn profit that will increase the wealth of its owners and grow the business itself. The owners and operators of a business have as one of their main objectives the receipt or generation of a financial return in exchange for work and acceptance of risk…The etymology of “business” relates to the state of being busy either as an individual or society as a whole, doing commercially viable and profitable work.

Besides the fact that governments generally don’t have customers and aren’t designed to compete within a market sector and usually don’t generate a profit, there’s a bigger problem with applying terms like “efficiency” to government. Governments are purposely designed to be inefficient! Do you really think that the whole checks-and-balances idea was done in the interest of efficiency? That the way the Senate operates is done in the interest of efficiency?

One of the smartest things I heard after I moved to Washington, DC was from a senior person at the Library of Congress. She asked the room, “How many of you think Congress is designed to pass laws?” Everybody raised their hand. She said, “Wrong. Congress is designed to not pass bad laws.”

Congress is inefficient for a reason, and to some degree all parts of government are. For all the complaining about gigantic, evil corporations not caring about their customers or the public at large, and in the middle of a recession in which greedy businesspeople nearly destroyed a global financial system, I can’t imagine why anyone would be eager to associate the word “business” with government. The government has enough issues, thanks.

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What You Should Read About Monetizing Your Tweetstream

There’s been a lot of discussion about the authority of Twitter users, and how users with many followers, or authority, or subject-matter expertise, might monetize their tweetstream via inserting paid advertisements. Here are the most important articles I’ve seen about this debate. I recommend reading them in the order below.

The New York Times has a piece that makes it sound cool and neat-o.

Paul Carr has a piece at TechCrunch that makes it sound like the end of civilization.

A venture capitalist investor in one of the services wrote a piece defending the idea.

Robert Scoble crunches some numbers and writes a good piece that digs deeper.

Finally, read this piece about the hypothetical SuperTweet with a “metadata payload.”

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IBM Knows How To Monetize Your Friends

IBM researcher Ching Yun Lin gave an interesting talk about the monetary value of having friends today at Web 2.0 Expo in New York. IBM is a gigantic company with thousands of people – mobile, global, and moving around. How do you find the right person to answer a unique question or problem? How does one unlock the power of existing social networks? Where within networks does knowledge actually reside?

I can’t hope to summarize the talk, injected with math and graphics and jargon as it was. But here’s the big takeaway: Your friends are worth money to your organization. Somehow, IBM scientists have not only determined that network size is positively correlated with performance, they also somehow know that every email in an address book is worth 948 dollars!

Researchers also found that stuctural diverse networks within which few people are connected are correlated with higher performance, and that having strong social links to managers also was positively correlated with performance. Some of the research information should be available here: http://smallblue.research.ibm.com

To me, this is really cool because I am an advocate of social networking as a positive influence on the workplace, even if such networking is not strictly work-related. IBM seems to have data that back up my more anecdotal and street-smart notions about this, which I’ve been speaking about lately under the guide of “Social Networking: The Two Dirtiest Words in Government 2.0” – and I will continue to do so!

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What Does Innovative Social Engagement Look Like?

As many of you know, I’ve been thinking about the topic of Government 2.0 a lot lately. Part of this topic deals with the multi-directional engagement between government and citizens. This is what the White House and others have termed a more transparent, collaborative, and participatory government.

Unfortunately, the engagement for the most part is not very authentic nor meaningful. Boring “fan pages” on Facebook are one example I’ve written about, but there are many others. Often, engagement, when it does happen has so many rules associated with it, or such a high barrier to entry, or such a limited window as to be practically meaningless.

It seems to me that everyone can celebrate the fact that government entities merely have a YouTube channel here, a Twitter account there, or a Blogger profile some other place (the so-called “TGIF revolution“), or we can think a little harder about what the goals of citizen engagement really might be.

On the evening of Nov 2nd, I tweeted from my phone about a local restaurant, Co Co Sala, just as I was leaving. We had a nice experience, but the hostess had been a little, shall we say, disinterested in helping us? So I commented as much.

Less than a week later, the co-owner of Co Co Sala sent me an email and cc’d his general manager. He apologized for the treatment I experienced, assured me it was not policy, introduced me to the manager, and said he’d talk to his staff. It was a four-paragraph email. I’ve never met him before, and furthermore, my personal email is discoverable but not the most easy thing to find.

This is what real social innovation looks like. This is what customer service looks like. This is what true engagement with stakeholders looks like. I want to give this great lounge Co Co Sala a hearty shout-out for not only having a great product, but also really caring about their customers.

Now, imagine we weren’t talking about a restaurant here. Imagine we are talking about the Department of Motor Vehicles, or the Patent and Trademark Office, or your Congressman. If you tweeted, would they see it? Would they care? Would they react in any way? I think the answer in many cases is no.

Let’s look at a sliver of data. According to TweetStats.com, the people behind the White House Twitter account reply to individuals less than 2% of the time, and seem to have never @ replied to any single more than once (i.e., they have never come close to a conversation). They re-tweet others’ tweets about 6.5% of the time, but they only seem to re-tweet other government accounts and the New York Times. Granted, there are more people tweeting about White House issues than Co Co Sala, but does the above data represent any caring in any way, shape or form?

The terrific TechPresident blog recently noted that actor Vin Diesel is the single most followed living person on Facebook – and that he recently passed up President Obama. Perhaps that’s because Vin Diesel’s Facebook fan page is awesome. He is engaged, his fans are engaged, and the tone is informal and fun. When did “serious and formal” become a substitute for “informative and meaningful” in government circles? Why is everyone scared of letting their guard down in public?

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My Quick Take on the Twitter-LinkedIn Deal

Anyone who talks to me a lot about Twitter knows that I often mention LinkedIn during those conversations. Why? It’s a storehouse of Rolodex information from high-income, business-oriented Internet users who know enough to be there but often have some trepidation about “social media” at the bleeding edge like Twitter and Facebook. And those are precisely the kind of users that Twitter needs to attract in order to grow and stave off competition.

Well, tonight Twitter and LinkedIn will announce a deal, according to ReadWriteWeb. It will allow people from LinkedIn to post to Twitter and vice versa, basically. I don’t know what exactly LinkedIn gets out of it – perhaps it’s just a maneuver to seem more hip and stay relevant. But from Twitter’s point of view, this seems like an obvious move to me. They effectively get tens of millions of novel users in a strategically important demographic.

If Twitter’s goal is to become communications infrastructure, and their strategy is to build a huge, dependent user base, then a deal with LinkedIn appears to be a prudent tactic.

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Social Networking: the Two Dirtiest Words in Government 2.0

Next week I’ll be speaking at a Sweets and Treats event called Social Networking: The Two Dirtiest Words in Government 2.0, which has been organized by Debbie Weil and is sponsored by Neighborhood America.

Sweets and Tweets features leading voices from DC’s diverse technology community talking about the use of social media by the public and private sector, from the White House and federal agencies to local startups. Previous events featured Mark Walsh on crowdsourcing and Andrew Wilson, who runs Flu.gov.

Neighborhood America is a terrific enterprise software company that has been doing cool things in the Gov 2.0 space before it was Gov 2.0, and Neighborhood America’s CIO Jim Haughwout will fly up from Florida to attend the event and mingle.

This is a private, after-hours event at the very cool Baked & Wired store in Georgetown. Attendees get free cupcakes, lots of time to mingle, and hopefully some food for thought about how social networking – those two dirty words – fits into the workplace, both within the government and beyond it.

Sweets and Tweets is Tuesday, November 17, 2009 from 7:00 – 8:15 PM, and you can get your tickets here: http://sweetsandtweets3.eventbrite.com/ (If you read about it here, use special discount code “sweeter3″ when you register!)

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Georgetown Professor Mike Nelson on Government Collective Intelligence at the ELC09 Conference

At the ACT/IAC Executive Leadership Conference (ELC) in Williamsburg, VA today, I got to hear from Mike Nelson, who’s a Visiting Professor of Internet Studies at Georgetown University. He spoke on a panel within the ELC “Innovation” track, and made what I thought was a great case for government innovating with social networking tools. [You may recall that I've previously written about how social networking is the underlying key to collaboration.]  The following is paraphrasing of Prof. Nelson’s thoughts.

We are drowning in a sea of information. In the future we will be encountering 50X as much information as we have now, and we’re already maxed out. How do we find the right piece of information, quickly, in any given future situation? The solution is, in essence, taking advantage of collective intelligence and using social tools to help share the best information with the people that need it. Working together helps to form a “group brain” that is a different paradigm than how we normally think about individualism and workflow. [My side note: How do we individually incentivize group thought?]

What’s the killer app for collective intelligence? This will change in the future, but right now it’s basically Facebook and Twitter, which can act as a powerful aggregation and filtering mechanism for finding the right information at the right time. Self-organizing systems of collective intelligence, as evidenced by organizations like IBM, are one part of solving the “collective intelligence problem.”

This quick post oversimplifies but hits the main points. It should also put Mike Nelson on your radar if he’s not already. Find out more about him here.

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