Home >Mint-lounge >Business-of-life >Twitter toes the line

In February, for the first time in Twitter’s history, chief executive officer Dick Costolo acknowledged that Twitter needed to reach a larger and more varied audience. “By bringing the content of Twitter forward and pushing the scaffolding of the language of Twitter to the background, we can increase high-quality interactions and make it more likely that new or casual users will find the service as indispensable as our existing core users do," Costolo announced at a meeting with investors.

The aim, he explained, was to create more visually engaging content. This was reflected in the announcement on changes in a user’s profile page on Twitter’s official blog (Blog.twitter.com) a week ago. The new profile allows for a huge, rectangular cover photo, a profile picture, with the capability to pin a tweet to the top, checking the favourite tweets of a user, or showing the most retweeted tweet in a bigger, easier-to-read font. The visual design changes also give the user the power to upload multiple pictures in a single tweet, making it all the more obvious that Twitter believes going visual is the way to survive the social networking game. The design of the Twitter profile page, however, now looks eerily similar to the Facebook and Google+ profiles.

Going mainstream

According to a November report by Business Insider Intelligence, a research service from business news website Business Insider, Facebook is the dominant social networking platform with 1.23 billion users worldwide, with YouTube following closely at one billion users. Twitter has a mere 241 million users worldwide, not even close to the two “mass" social networks.

“Today the big question for all networks is how to increase engagement and the time users spend on their sites," says Sunit Singh, lead designer of travel site Cleartrip.com. Facebook, he believes, has already cracked the mass market. From being a closed network meant primarily for family and friends, it’s now a sub-Internet with spaces for everything—private conversations, the ability to follow someone publicly, interest-based communities in groups, as well as brand-following with pages. Twitter, on the other hand, has remained more or less a broadcast medium for a niche audience which knows its daunting language of hashtags, ats and acronyms.

The redesign wasn’t a random choice. Twitter first tested out the more visual feel of the profile on a handful of users, and only after the initial, mostly positive response, did it decide to implement it for the entire user base. The Twitter blog indicates that the new design will be rolled out within a month.

“Designers for Web spaces have a unique tool in their hand, an ability to run experiments on a subset of people to see how they would react to a particular feature," says Rahul Gonsalves, founder of Uncommon, a mobile design company that has designed apps for e-commerce companies Flipkart and Groupon, and restaurant search engine Zomato. Web design has advanced to such a stage that not a single design feature is included without analysis and statistics on what users want. “In this sense, the changes Twitter has introduced actually reflect what their users might want," says Gonsalves.

“Our ambition is to reach every person on the planet and every Indian in the country," says
Rishi Jaitly, India market director, Twitter. Within the country, Twitter is already aggressively tying up with mobile operators, media companies, brands and major events in innovative ways (such as giving missed calls to tweet) to get people to tweet.

Mobile first

A majority of new Internet users in the country access Internet only through their mobile phones. A more visual design reflects the need to access this new generation. “Internet space is now moving from the initial user base, which was English-only, to a non-English, more mass audience who go online only through their phones," says Anirudha Joshi, professor, Industrial Design Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, adding: “They will use digital spaces only if these spaces give them any value."

Prof. Joshi believes that to cater to this new user base social networks have to focus more on how photographs and videos can be used.

“Mobile first is not a choice any more for companies, but a requirement," says Kevin Yun, founder of Designation, a user interface/user experience design school based in the US, in an email.

Catering to brands

The new design also seems to aim at something that Twitter needs—more advertisers. Sponsored tweets, the ability to pin a tweet to the top of the page, the ability to pull out high-engagement tweets as well as see favourites and retweets, all seem to imply that Twitter wants to give more design control to its advertiser in terms of catering to its customers within the site.

Gonsalves believes the new design seems to be much more like traditional media itself. “Before, there was an emphasis on creating your own content, but now it has become much closer to traditional media where there are strong influencers and users are following and engaging with them," he says. This shift from creating content yourself to following celebrities, be it in sports, movies or events, has been emphasized in Twitter’s blog on redesign, where all the accounts that got this redesign first were high-profile ones of celebrities like actor Zac Efron (@ZacEfron), football teams like the Australian Football League (@AFL), political personalities like Michelle Obama (@flotus) and musicians like @JohnLegend. It’s the same emphasis that Facebook Pages and Google+’s profile page reflect. “Though it might turn off the regular niche users," says Gonsalves, “it will make the site easier to navigate for a more mainstream audience who would just come to Twitter to interact with their favourite celebrity."

With Internet becoming more mainstream, this seems to be the way forward for all social networks—create a public space where people can come to listen in to celebrities and brands, interact and engage with them and also create subsets within this larger space which are private, and where people can share different aspects of themselves. “We seem to be again at a crossroad where the feeling is that something big is going to happen," says Prof. Joshi.

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