Why every social network is destined to piss off its power users

twitter battle

There’s a growing cynicism on the internet that rears its head whenever a beloved software product releases some kind of update. The platform debuts new features with grand claims of how it’s improving design and user experience while also launching a bevy of new tools, but no matter how innovative those updates are, an angry and very loud chorus of users will decry the changes, not only voicing their displeasure but ascribing the software company’s moves as stemming from greed and an outright hatred of its users. I still remember the day the Facebook newsfeed — now considered an integral feature of the social network — appeared with great fanfare, and within 24 hours a group demanding its removal had gathered over a million members. Could you imagine what Facebook would be like today if it had kowtowed to these demands and you’d need to visit individual pages in order to see new updates?

A particularly vehement barrage of ire has been directed at Twitter as of late as it has rolled out several changes that have the potential to vastly transform the user experience on the platform. As Mathew Ingram details in Gigaom, the latest iteration that has caused outrage is a new feature called “while you were away.” Twitter, unlike Facebook, displays a raw feed of reverse chronological tweets, and anyone who has used the platform knows that any tweets that appear there while you’re not logged in and reading them are quickly buried under an avalanche of new tweets, thereby ensuring that the vast majority of the content published by those you follow will never be seen. “While you were away” seeks to surface what Twitter deems as the most important tweets you missed while you were logged out.

Many critics have interpreted these moves not as an attempt to improve the user experience, but a greedy decision on Twitter’s part to hold content hostage and force brands to pay up to have their tweets seen by their followers, just as Facebook charges pages in order to display their updates to a larger percentage of their fans. But as Ingram explains, “the point behind such enhancements is that Twitter wants to improve the utility for certain users, primarily the ones who only dip into their timeline now and then, and want to see something useful or interesting.”

It’s simply incorrect to think of a platform’s users as a single bloc, but rather there are several levels of users based on frequency of use and familiarity with the platform, and Twitter’s moves represent the delicate balance every social network faces as it achieves mainstream success and must generalize its offerings in order to appeal to a wider base of consumers. On the one side you have the power users, those who have invested hundreds of hours into the tool and who know its lingua franca (“hashtags”; “subtweet”) and its quirks, and on the other you have the more casual drive-by users who may find this network with its insider lingo impenetrable and of little recognizable value. I recently found myself trying to onboard my father onto Twitter, and I was surprised by how difficult it was for me to explain the functionality of what I had until then assumed were relatively straightforward tools. As I watched his eyes glaze over while I tried to explain how you can reply to another person or retweet his tweet into your own stream, I realized the gargantuan hurdle Twitter faces when it tries to appeal to people like my dad.

There’s a problem that Twitter and other social networks face when they try to appeal to these more casual users, however, in that if they take it too far they risk alienating their strongest evangelists. Case in point: Digg.com. When it launched in the mid-2000s it mainly appealed to a tech-savvy audience, but as it grew in importance, attracting hundreds of millions of monthly visitors and sending thousands of clicks to any link posted to its front page, a divisive war broke out between the power Diggers, who believed they were the ones who made Digg so great, and those who were annoyed that the vast majority of front page posts were submitted by a tiny minority of users. It had become apparent to nearly everyone that if you didn’t spend nearly your entire day trading quid pro quo upvotes (or “diggs”) with other power users then anything you submitted would die on the vine before being featured on the front page.

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Digg’s engineers faced a dilemma. If they catered to the power users then they risked relegating the network as a niche product, but if it tried to level the playing field then it risked pissing off the very people who had helped build its power and influence. In the end, it went with the latter option, installing all sorts of restrictions that penalized users who tried to digg too many posts in a short period of time while issuing outright bans against some of the biggest players on the network. The final deathblow to the power users came when it rolled out an update in which users could subscribe to RSS feeds for publications, thereby allowing news companies to bypass the power users completely and attempt to market their content directly to Digg’s huge audience. But the move backfired, and within days users began abandoning Digg by the thousands.  Within just a few years it was assumed to be nearly worthless and it was sold for scraps to Betaworks for a measly $500,000.

Point to any successful community platform on the web and you’ll find a war brewing between its most devoted users and those trying to edge their way in. For years now Wikipedia has been facing a decrease in the overall number of users who actually edit articles, and many attribute this to stringent rules enforced by entrenched longtime admins and editors who have been unwelcoming to new users, bogging down the encyclopedia with so many rules and regulations that no new editor would find it worth the time to learn them. Some of the fiercest battles of late have occurred on Reddit, where users have grown angry at what they consider to be power-hungry moderators who have installed anti-democratic restrictions on what can be posted to the most popular subreddits.

In each of these cases, the company that’s built the platform must act as referee, installing software updates and making administrative decisions that mediate the conflicts between the power users and the more casual adopters. It’s a delicate balance to strike, but no matter how nuanced its changes there will always be a vocal subset of users waiting to lash out the moment they feel their power and influence has been degraded. The challenge — and it’s a daunting one — is knowing when to heed their threats of mass exodus and when to ignore them. As Twitter continues to battle a rising group of social networks competing for consumers’ finite time and resources, it must tread carefully, lest it drive away the very early adopters that made it a household name.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via Still Curtain