Friday, July 15, 2016

How to Make Twitter Actually Useful

With new features, the social network is fixing its biggest problems to win back Twitter quitters—but it still needs to do more

Here’s the longer-than-140-character version: Hannah Barz, a 22-year-old New York University student, signed up for Twitter in 2013 and really wanted to get into it. But she gave up, because she just couldn’t catch on. Who was she supposed to follow? How could she keep up with the fast-paced timeline? When she tweeted, was anybody listening? Ms. Barz hasn’t logged into the service in a year.

My own love for Twitter borders on unhealthy. It’s the first thing I look at in the morning and the last before I go to bed. You really can’t get the news faster or in greater breadth on any other social media platform. But nearly half of my 84,000 followers, including @hannahjeanbarz, change their Brita filters more often than they tweet. Many of their profiles look like deserted bird’s nests, with the default egg profile image and no sign of fresh tweets.

I’d blame my own boring tweets, but they’re certainly not the cause of Twitter’s most recent business woes. Not only is the company failing to attract new users, but it reported a decline in monthly active users last quarter. As a result, Twitter has been desperately releasing features to address everyone’s issues.
To find out if these features knock down the biggest roadblocks, I tracked down and interrogated dozens of my followers who have abandoned the network. It turns out, Twitter does deserve a second chance. Still, it has a long way to go in fixing its biggest problem: explaining why you’d add it to your already packed social media repertoire of Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Problem #1: What is Twitter for, anyway?

I heard it a lot: Facebook and Instagram are for connecting with friends, LinkedIn with business colleagues. So what exactly am I supposed to do with this thing? 
The Moments tab is the best way to catch up on the most recent news stories being discussed on Twitter. Photo: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal
It’s time to stop thinking of Twitter as a social network. It’s more of a news network. I spend 75% of my time in the app getting news on everything from politics to technology to, yes, the Kardashians. Twitter is one of the few places where you can get direct access to the newsmakers, too, and eavesdrop on conversations between people you’ll never meet in real life. (Here’s an all-time classic.)
It’s OK to use Twitter only as a real-time news wire, and only launch the app when you want to keep up with live events like the Oscars, presidential debates or the NCAA tournament. You’ll likely find it to be faster, franker and funnier than Facebook.
Want to know the easiest way to use Twitter? Log into your account, skip over the Home tab and tap on the lighting bolt that is Twitter’s Moments tab. Here Twitter surfaces the most current and popular news stories shared on the service, and the best tweets about them.

Problem #2: Who do I follow and how do I keep up?
Of course, one of the best parts about Twitter is customizing your experience by following the accounts and people you’re most interested in.
When you sign up for the service, Twitter allows you to select people, companies and media outlets to follow based on your interests. Though Twitter doesn’t offer users a similar tool after the sign-up process, anyone can find interesting things to follow by tapping the little man icon in the top left corner of the mobile app, then selecting either Popular (for everyone) or Tailored (for you).
Now, beware: Twitter’s timeline is like Facebook’s newsfeed on caffeine pills. People told me they stopped coming back to Twitter because of the frenetic pace of their feeds. You just have to let go of the idea that you’ll be able to read everything.
Once you’ve accumulated a reasonably sane number of news and entertainment sources, say 50, turn on the new Best Tweets timeline setting. It shows you the top tweets from those you follow. (Unlike Facebook, if you scroll down a bit, you’ll eventually see every tweet from every account, in reverse chronological order.)
The tweets are chosen based on their popularity and what you may have “liked” in the past. Selected tweets aren’t marked—you may just notice a tweet from two hours ago at the top of your timeline.
This is a giant step in the right direction, but its setting is buried. You must go into Settings > Account > Timeline personalization, then flip the switch. Twitter will soon send prompts to people letting them know it has turned the feature on for them. You can disable it in Settings if you don’t like it. Whether or not you have this turned on, you’ll still see a “While you were away” digest of tweets when you come back to the app after several hours. Yes, it’s confusing.
Another buried feature, Lists, allows you to organize accounts in themed clusters, like work colleagues or cooking. Twitter should do some of that work for you, organizing the accounts you follow around themes, then surface the most important tweets from those feeds. How about, for instance, an automatically generated hometown news feed?
If you want to see what’s trending in your immediate circles now, the best bet is a service called Nuzzel. When you sign in with your account, it shows you the top stories being circulated by accounts you follow.

Problem #3: How do I use this thing?

The most interesting complaint I heard was some variation of this: “I’m very tech-savvy, but the whole service confuses me. I didn’t know if I was using it right.”
Twitter isn’t as baffling as Snapchat. But at first it can be like learning a Morse code of @s, #s, retweets, quote tweets, DMs, etc.

Explanatory videos aside, Twitter needs to provide more basic instructions. When I sent a direct message (aka DM) to a follower, he responded, “I didn’t even know you could private message on here!” Another user asked the difference between “retweet” and “quote tweet.” Here you go: A retweet is sharing someone else’s tweet with your followers. When you quote a tweet, you add commentary before sharing it.
Usability has become a major area of focus, Jeff Seibert, Twitter’s head of consumer product, tells me. The “favorite” star icon became a small “like” heart, and millions more are now clicking it, he says. Hashtag pages, where you can see trending topics, are now easier to read. Soon, there will be a way to respond to someone so everyone can see your response—a move which now requires an awkward workaround.
Intimidated by the character limit? While the company explores expanding the famous 140-character text limits on tweets, you can upload a screenshot of text—try the OneShot app—or use the new GIF button to insert some fun animations. Mr. Seibert says Twitter is even considering letting you edit tweets after they’re posted.

Problem #4: Who am I supposed to talk to?

Twitter can feel like yelling in a soundproof room: No one seems to be listening. Many Twitter quitters expressed confusion about who they were tweeting to—if anyone.

Know when you should absolutely tweet? When you have a problem with a company or product and need assistance. Many brands actively engage with users, and Twitter recently released a customer-service messaging tool so they can talk to you directly. Last month, Apple launched its @AppleSupport account and is responding to most inquiries. @NikeSupport, @zappos_service and @KLM are among the other top customer service accounts on the network.
I know I said you should mainly just shut up and read, but there are plenty of good conversations to jump into on Twitter if you’re brave enough to take the leap. And that’s the best way to get followers: Share when you have something meaningful and constructive to contribute. Taylor Swift will probably never respond, but if you’re, say, a marine biologist, you might just end up having great conversations with your peers—if you can find them.
If improved, it could be one of the greatest strengths over Facebook, which has slowly picked off some of Twitter’s best features.
“Facebook has become my go-to for news and videos. It’s just been much easier to manage,” Ms. Barz says.
Told you she’s Twitter’s biggest problem.