My predictions for Twitter in 2016, and how we might prepare

As I write this, Twitter stock is falling. Fast.

The company, which turns 10 years old in March of this year, has been facing increasing pressures as its new CEO tries to change the platform enough to entice new users. It has a tough road ahead: despite plenty of changes in 2015, Twitter’s monthly active users in the U.S. grew only a reported 3 percent.

For Twitter to stay relevant and viable as a business, CEO Jack Dorsey will no doubt be shaking things up in a big way. This month, social media professionals across WGBH came together to discuss what some of these possible changes could be, and how we, as public media producers, could best prepare.

Beyond 140 characters
Twitter is rumored to be testing tweets “beyond 140,” allowing tweets break the vaunted 140-character limit that the platform has defined itself by. In fact, Re/Code has reported that the new character limit might be as mind-bogglingly huge as 10,000 characters — short novel length.

At first glance, this seems like it would be a massive shift in how Twitter would work. But it might not end up that big of a deal. Your timeline would probably look exactly the same: a long scroll of tweets from those you follow. I would bet that Twitter rolls out a “read more” feature, allowing you to click to expand the tweet into the additional content.

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 6.23.26 PMThe repercussions for digital teams, however, might be much larger. Although Twitter has never been a huge traffic driver, if publications decide to host articles, multimedia and other long(er) form content natively in tweets, referral traffic from Twitter to publisher sites will dry up fast.

This subtle move indicates a much larger shift: by eliminating the need to post links in tweets, Twitter would be expediting the shift towards native content. This is the exact move that Facebook made with its Instant Articles feature — providing the user the opportunity to experience a publisher’s content organically within the platform itself, not pushing the user to another destination with unfamiliar territory and slow load times. The case Facebook made last year: People don’t want to be pointed elsewhere. If it’s not right in front of them, they’re not going to be patient enough to follow where you point.

How can we be ready for this change? I am encouraging the productions I work with to have the tough “distributed content” conversation internally. What are your goals with your content? What matters most to you: Site traffic or eyeballs?

One big question for me is the question of monetization on Twitter. A big argument for teams that want to maximize referral traffic is that only on their websites can they run ads from their funders and sponsors; furthermore, at this point there is no direct path to membership for native social fans. Will Twitter begin to roll out options for sponsor presence, as Snapchat and Facebook have done with their native offerings?

This feature could launch as early as March: these conversations should be happening sooner rather than later.

A Twitter edit feature
Twitter might bite the bullet (and the immense repercussions) of an edit feature to tweets. If you send out a tweet that you want to take back / is false / is damaging, you would be able to edit the text (this has been a feature on Facebook for some time now). This one is fairly straightforward in its pros and cons:

Kim Kardashian is a genius!
Kim Kardashian is a genius!

Advantage to an edit button: False information will not be spread at the rate it is today. This would be a huge service to journalism, as studies have proven that twitter corrections or attempts to clarify false information do not travel as far or wide as the original (false) tweet. This would be a huge victory for journalism.

Disadvantage to an edit button: People would be able to not only edit false information, but also edit their previous remarks or opinions. This would be rewriting history, and could be taken out of context. There are huge red flags here, and opportunities for dishonest treatment of the edit feature by politicians, journalists, public figures, or celebrities.

I’ve been following the discussion around the idea of an edit button on (yes…) Twitter: #EditTweet

A Twitter algorithm
This change, in my opinion, is the big one. This change would introduce an algorithm to Twitter’s timeline, ranking tweets according to a pre-determined calculation (probably a combination of reach, engagement, and influence of the tweeter) instead of showing all tweets of those you follow chronologically.

Twitter has been experimenting with this idea with its “While you were away” feature, that shows you important tweets that you “may have missed” since the last time you logged in. These tweets, one would guess, are determined using a similar algorithm they might roll out to the general timeline.

Unlike the “beyond 140” feature, this one would be a game-changer. If I was a publisher, I would now be competing with everyone else to get my tweet seen over others. I would be at the mercy of Twitter’s algorithm; if Twitter decided to rank Periscope videos above everything else I would have to cater to that preference in order to stay relevant. My organic reach would plummet, and eventually I would have to rely on Twitter ads to boost my content to the users who used to see my tweets (but not engage with them) all the time.

To social savvy professionals, this calculation might sound familiar. As someone at WGBH said the other say: “And Twitter would be different from Facebook how…?”

If I had to guess, I would think Twitter would not roll out a blanket algorithm in a way that would completely change how everyone uses Twitter. Twitter might roll out an algorithm timeline as an option for current Twitter users, and as the default experience for new users (as this sort of timeline is familiar to most everyone who uses Facebook).

So how can we prepare for this potential zinger? Above all else, have a clear-eyed view on what goals Twitter is helping to accomplish at this moment. Is Twitter helping you drive a lot of traffic? Is it the best place where audiences can engage with your broadcast? Or is it something else? Only when you understand the value of Twitter today, can you begin to evaluate how to maintain that core value when things change.

Overall, if Twitter decides to implement one or all of these moves in 2016, the message will be clear: they want the platform to become a distributed content platform where publishers natively post content. We will all benefit by anticipating this as a possibility and being ready to pivot your strategy and focus when that day comes.

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