If Twitter CEO Dick Costolo had to name his chief frustration, I bet it’d be investors’ unwillingness to look beyond the logged-in user. Wall Street analysts have hammered the company because its growth of monthly logged-in users has stalled while Instagram, with its 300 million users, sped past. Costolo has insisted that this number is, while not meaningless, at least very misleading, because it masks the overall reach of Twitter. “There’s also the hundreds of millions of people who come to Twitter and don’t log in,” he’s said. “And beyond that, there’s the world of a syndicated audience. That audience we reach across the entirety of the web.” What he means is that there are millions of users who don’t log in but perhaps visit the Twitter streams of their favorite celebrities, or they see tweets embedded in an article, or they’re watching television programming where the hosts are reading tweets live on the air. Twitter co-founder Ev Williams put it even more succinctly:
If you think about the impact Twitter has on the world versus Instagram, it’s pretty significant. It’s at least apples to oranges. Twitter is what we wanted it to be. It’s this realtime information network where everything in the world that happens on Twitter—important stuff breaks on Twitter and world leaders have conversations on Twitter. If that’s happening, I frankly don’t give a shit if Instagram has more people looking at pretty pictures.
If Costolo’s view is that these logged-out users are extremely valuable, a view I’m sympathetic to, then what puzzles me is why Twitter doesn’t do more to cater to these users. To understand what I mean by this, let’s look at another social network that has a high number of logged-out, casual users: Reddit.
Now I don’t know exactly how many Reddit users log in in a given month, but I do know, based on stats it makes publicly available, that on any given day about 3.2 million users log in. For the sake of argument, let’s say that three times that number, roughly 10 million, log in at least once a month. According to Reddit’s official stats, it’s visited by 174 million unique visitors a month. That would mean that 94 percent of the people who visit Reddit every month never log in.
Reddit is extremely valuable as a tool for casual users, and to understand why, here’s a screengrab of its front page when you’re not logged in:
Now here’s what I see when I visit Twitter.com as a logged-out user:
Notice the difference? A user who visits Reddit is immediately pulled in and able to extract utility from that visit. Someone who visits Twitter is prompted to sign up for a tool without any initial indication of its value.
I would consider myself a pretty involved Reddit user, one who regularly logs in, subscribes to subreddits, and even occasionally comments and submits posts. But I wasn’t always that way. For a long time I visited Reddit without ever logging in, perusing its front page for interesting links to click on. Then eventually I started clicking through to its comments and, while there, learned about interesting subreddits that I would need an account in order to subscribe to. Through its default subreddits, I was led down a rabbit hole that resulted in me obsessively reloading the Serial podcast subreddit and diving deep into comment threads.
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What if, instead of seeing a log-in page when you visit Twitter.com, you instead encounter a stream of “default” Twitter users. Twitter’s staff could either establish a list of 200 or so news organizations, celebrities, and interesting accounts, or it could hire an editorial team (or enlist a company like Storyful) to curate the most interesting content. Suddenly, Twitter.com becomes the go-to place for the real-time web, an alternative to Google News or any other web destination where users go for a distillation for news. And once Twitter has managed to hook these more casual visitors, they start to realize, ever so slowly, that they are only scratching the surface and can discover even more interesting content if they create an account and follow those users. And once they’re logged in, they realize how easy it is to create content and to opine on the content they’re reading.
In fact, Twitter may have already realized this missed opportunity. According to AdAge, it’s planning some kind of revamped homepage:
Among the pitches at CES was an improved home-page for logged-out users that would include paid products, according to executives Twitter pitched last week. To address flagging engagement, Twitter recently introduced a slate of features, including an “instant timeline,” to attract more users. The website shown last week included a series of tiles featuring Twitter content, both images and text, clustered by subject matter, like entertainment and sports.
Without seeing screenshots of this revamped homepage, it’s difficult to tell how robust such a product will be, but the news does indicate that Twitter, if it wants to convince investors of its utility beyond logged-in users, knows it needs to provide a venue for those logged-out users to congregate. If it does, then it has the opportunity to become the true homepage of the internet, and its significance as arguably the most important social network will be even more readily apparent.
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