Twitter Suggested Users: problem and solution
Plenty of swirl this week about the Suggested Users page that Twitter newcomers see after sign-up. Jason Calacanis (co-founder of Weblogs, Inc., which publishes Download Squad) made a splashy offer of $250,000 to be installed near the top of the suggested list for two years. Dave Winer refuted that ploy, and the list generally. But Winer's complaint with Twitter's list misses the mark.
Suggested Users is meant to be a starter kit for new Twitter users. It is well-meaning but misguided, and surprisingly, seems to misunderstand and misrepresent what Twitter really is. Dave Winer's complaint is that Twitter is misusing its network power by applying editorial discretion to single out a tiny handful of its users. But in my view, Twitter is exercising the same sort of newbie service that My Yahoo! and Google Reader do: give unsteady new users a toehold by recommending some content.
There is no problem in principle with Twitter lending users a helping hand as new consumers of Twitter content. The issue with Suggested Users is that it shines the discovery spotlight in the wrong direction, ignoring Twitter's rapidly manifesting future as a global information matrix.
Currently, Twitter recommends leaping in by friending people -- following recommended feeds. Twitter suggests a mix of: 1) quirky individuals, 2) Twitter accounts affiliated with A-list blogs, and 3) tweeting celebrities. The service is trying to assist the unmotivated newcomer, by which I mean someone who joins out of general Twitter curiosity, not because they want to follow offline friends in an online space. You don't want to point that person to the personal feeds of strangers. Twitter also shouldn't become an A-list blog recommendation service. And while tweeting celebrities might seem to offer entertainment value, I can say that in many cases the reality is painfully disappointing.
The best way to lock in an unmotivated newcomer with quick, exciting value, is to teach that person how to search. Rather than picking needles out of haystacks, reveal the vast scope of the Twitterverse. Give a man a fish you feed him once; teach him to fish, etc..
Twitter need never lose its legacy purpose of intersecting friends around the question "What are you doing now?" But its larger destiny is to be the new Google. Users who don't already have Twitter friends could benefit hugely from a brief, clear tutorial on Twitter Search, and a focus on a new question: "What is the world talking about now?" When you dive in from that angle, you find your own organic points of attraction, and the foolish Suggested Users list recedes into the irrelevant background. On the flip side, Twitter publishers get an organic audience, unpolluted by an artificially inflated followers list.
Jason Calacanis' offer to buy a spot in Suggested Users is being interpreted as a prospective business model for revenue-free Twitter. But Twitter's business future should match its true strength, which is the developing critical mass of its global mob. Twitter is already faster, more precise, and smarter than Google Search. The advantage will only widen. The most evident business future lies in search advertising. Everybody should be searching Twitter, either through its portal search tool or one of the third-party sites. And without question, all those newcomers being unnaturally shoved into stranger feeds should be taught to search instead.