Popular chat-room operator Twitter is complaining that Google are competing with them. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking – you’re on your own here, Twitter. People keep trying to improve your product, and you keep knocking ‘em back. It’s not hugely surprising that Google find your service easy to replicate and improve – there is just nothing to love about Twitter’s product any more.
So let’s start with search: Twitter have never actually published their users’ old tweets in a searchable form. If you want to look up something you said a year ago, you simply can’t find it. You can dig around the awfully slow search.twitter.com but after a certain number of tweets, it doesn’t let you see any more. Google made a deal with Twitter in 2009 to allow them to search tweets, but that deal has now expired and Twitter has just gone back to its pre-2009 usability with no explanation to users.
You can’t even download all of your own tweets – after 3200 they’re stuck in Twitter’s attic. At some point they might work out how to make money from your old data, and sell it back to you somehow, but I wouldn’t count on it. Even services like backupmytweets.com which offer this can’t delve past the 3200 tweet limit. It’s not even clear that Twitter have been able to keep old tweets.
[As an aside- to anyone thinking this is some kind of unearthly “big data” problem – let’s assume Twitter has averaged 2000 tweets per second for five years – they’ve not quite been going that long and not always that strong, but from the “record tweet rate” press releases, it seems like a reasonable guess. That’s … 315.36 billion tweets. We know they are 140 characters, plus a little bit of linking and attribution information, is 200 bytes fair? So that is some raw data of around 58 terabytes. That’s around 20 hard discs full – to contain all of Twitter, ever. The highest advertised peak data rate from Twitter on this basis is a pretty paltry 40Mbps or so, and the second-highest is about 15Mbps. Why can’t we search this data again?]
Then they have been running pics.twitter.com since June 2011, and that doesn’t work. How often do you click on a link, see your browser jump through three redirects, and show a “broken image” link? (well, for me, a lot). twitpic and yfrog never seemed to have this problem, but now tweetdeck’s default has been changed to Twitter’s crappier in-house service.
And at some point in the last 12 months after “competition” from bit.ly, is.gd and all the rest of these utterly trivial add-on services, link-shortening suddenly became compulsory. So even if you post a nice short link to your followers, Twitter insist on bouncing it through their in-house redirect service t.co. This makes links take longer to load (and Twitter get to track your clicks).
So that’s the list of things that Twitter can’t do very well after three years: searching, publishing photos, and linking to other sites.
Right now Twitter are lucky to still have a user base that don’t care how unreliable the product is, because of a very sticky network effect. But at some point, a new Twitter will spring up, or rather people will find a better piece of software or network to communicate on. Over the last 10 years, social networks change like the tides. If Twitter Inc. want to play for a bit more time (and a surge in loyalty), the best thing they could do is find a better way of co-operating with the companies that want to improve their service, and making money from opening their rather small amount of data.