What did Facebook have that Twitter did not? Ben Thompson thinks that it was focus on the news feed and not exploiting it when Twitter had the lead on mobile. He argues that failure has constrained it to this very day and appears to be pessimistic that there is anything Twitter can do to recover.
I think the thesis that Twitter was harmed by choices close to its founding is actually a good one. But I would phrase it differently. The difference between Facebook and Twitter is that Facebook had a strategy and Twitter never did. This is not a controversial claim for anyone who has read Hatching Twitter. It wasn’t even clear the founding team had anything like an agreed upon vision let alone a strategy.
Let me start by reminding everyone what an entrepereneurial strategy comprises. It comprises four main initial choices: who is your customer, what is your technology, what is your identity and who is your competition. For Facebook these choices were very clear. Initially, its customer were college and then high school students. Its technology was a desktop application centered around an activity stream. Its identity was to be favour decisions that generated social activity and use and to not charge consumers directly ever. Finally, its competition was other forms of social communication and distinct from any existing service.
Contrast this with Twitter. Twitter’s core idea was around the limited size tweet. But even that was not a clear choice as it was driven by one thing: technology and their desire to be used from all mobile phones. This was pre-smart phones so they were running off SMS for interaction with its 140 character limit. They did not make a choice of customer — it was everyone and hence, no one in particular. They did not have an identity — there was nothing they stood for and no set of vision that signaled to others internally or externally of what they were going to do. And, as for the competition choice, were they a stand-alone product or a potential acquiree of Google or Facebook? The point here is that there was certainly no consideration of these key choices let alone formulating them into a coherent strategy. Instead, a minor technology choice drove the entire operation and every single innovation from Twitter has come from its users (think, replies, retweets etc).
Twitter didn’t have a plan at its founding and so it is not surprising that it doesn’t have one to this day. Indeed, most people can’t work out what Twitter is about. Everyone (myself included) tries to think of some good advice but really we have no idea. That is because everyone who uses Twitter uses it for something and that something is different for most people. I can tell you how I use Twitter but I can’t really tell you why. Given that I can’t categorise it as a product let alone something that you can just correct strategic course on.
Given this assessment I wonder if the process of finding a strategy for Twitter is actually fruitless and the only lucky thing we have is that the founders didn’t realise that at the start or they wouldn’t have bothered. Instead the only truely insightful thing said about Twitter ever was by Paul Graham who in 2009 wrote why Twitter was a big deal:
The reason is that it’s a new messaging protocol, where you don’t specify the recipients. New protocols are rare. Or more precisely, new protocols that take off are. There are only a handful of commonly used ones: TCP/IP (the Internet), SMTP (email), HTTP (the web), and so on. So any new protocol is a big deal. But Twitter is a protocol owned by a private company. That’s even rarer.
Yes, Twitter is a communications protocol. That is it. But it is the sort of thing that would be better invented and then let lose as a purely open system like the other protocols. Twitter needs infrastructure to work and it is owned by a private company. It is the combination of those two things that currently limits it from taking off. If Twitter were opened up on a non-private way with a technology that allowed others to use its messaging protocol, then I suspect it would reach its potential. Will it earn money for the founders (and current shareholders) in the process? I think that ship has sailed.