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Summary:

A firestorm erupted this weekend over a new Twitter feature known as the “Quick Bar,” designed to show trending topics. The criticisms are a symptom of a larger problem for Twitter: it wants to be a business, and users still see it as a utility.

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Over the weekend, a minor firestorm erupted over a new feature in the official Twitter iPhone and iPad clients known as the “Quick Bar,” a strip at the top of a user’s tweet-stream designed to show trending topics. As users started criticizing the feature for being too intrusive, however, it quickly became known as the “dickbar,” in reference to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. Although the company has since said that a new update is on its way that will make the feature less annoying, the outrage over the #dickbar is a symptom of a larger problem for Twitter: it wants to be a business, and users have gotten used to it being a utility.

The update with the Quick Bar included was actually released on Thursday, and the trending topics feature was just one of a number of enhancements that Twitter introduced in that update, including automated URL shortening (using the company’s internal shortener, t.co, which it launched last year) and an auto-complete function for user names and hashtags — including, ironically, the #dickbar hashtag. Criticism of the Quick Bar seemed to pick up speed, and then exploded over the weekend.

One of the big complaints about the new feature is the way the trending topics bar gets overlaid on top of the Twitter stream, appearing whenever the feed was refreshed, and partially obscuring tweets. According to spokesman Sean Garrett, the new update that Twitter has submitted to the Apple store “fixes some bugs, and makes it so the quickbar doesn’t overlay on tweets” — but judging by his tweets and those from CEO Costolo, there’s no sign the company plans to allow users to disable or turn off the feature, something many have been asking for since it was introduced.

Although a number of users have said that they find the whole idea of trending topics irritating and unnecessary, Costolo has made it clear that this is a key part of the service’s functionality, saying “If users didn’t like trends, we wouldn’t have trends.” And while the Twitter CEO didn’t come right out and say so, one of the obvious reasons is that promoted tweets and promoted trends are two of the ways in which the company is trying to generate revenue and profits — and doing this has become even more important now that Twitter is theoretically valued somewhere between $3.7 billion (based on its last round of financing) and $7.7 billion as a result of secondary-market trading.

The Quick Bar fiasco may be a minor event, but it is an indication of a larger problem for Twitter: namely, that it has spent so much of its life being an open communications platform — more like a social-networking utility than a business, with a focus on how it can enable real-time publishing for everyone, including those fighting oppressive governments around the world — that it is jarring for users whenever the company does something cold or calculating like suddenly cutting off Twitter applications (as it did recently with Ubermedia) or implementing features that are clearly designed more to generate revenue than they are to serve the needs of users.

This is a line that Facebook has been trying to walk as well, of course — being a social utility, but also making money from advertising — but it seems to have done a better job of mixing the two so far. As Costolo tries to expand the business to justify those soaring valuations, we are likely to see more clashes with users rather than less.

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  1. So Twitter “wants to be a business, and users have gotten used to it being a utility.”

    Why contrast a business and a utility? I get electricity from a utility that is also a for-profit business. Unfortunately, Pepco is about as good as Twitter at providing uninterrupted service. But I still pay Pepco.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Andrew — I don’t think it’s impossible for Twitter to be both, but the inherent conflict between those two purposes is proving to be difficult for the company to overcome.

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  2. The key point is that Trending Topics is “a key part of the service’s functionality”, making Twitter less of a Web Utility and more of a Media Entity. And a MASS Media Entity, therefore the “Appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator” rule applies. #bootyappreciationmonday is currently the top Trending Topic. Charlie Sheen got over 2 million followers in less than a week. I checked and less than 10 of the 900 people I follow are following Sheen. And all but two of them are ‘celebrity tweeters’ I follow for laughs (and a couple of them I unfollowed for getting too Sheen-centric and no longer being funny). So I’m obviously not the market they’re targeting, but I can continue to use the service and tolerate the Lowest Common Denominator marketing. I was less bothered than many by the whole NewTwitter a while ago because I’d trained myself by not using AdBlock to focus on the useful parts of a webpage and ignore the crappy parts. But overlaying the Quickbar on top of other content is a problem, whatever they put in it, and should just drive the smart (and easily bothered) users to 3rd party apps. But the smart users aren’t the important market to Twitter anymore. Lowest Common Denominator, remember?

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  3. I don’t have the iPhone app but is what people don’t like 1) the hovering of the bar over Tweets, 2) the Promoted Trending Topics, 3) the feature of Trending Topics in general or 4) all of the above?

    It sounds like #1 and #2 but I’m not sure about #3.

    Ironic but #DickBar never became a Trending Topic so I guess most iPhone users are using a different Twitter app.

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    1. I get the sense that it’s mostly #1 and #2 with a little bit of #3 thrown in for good measure :-)

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    2. I think the key thing is that if the bar was there only to cover trending topics, they would enable the user to disable it, because … well why not?

      The reason they won’t let us disable it can really only be the “promoted trends” (advertisements). It’s clearly about the advertisements.

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  4. I disagree that the issue is that of Twitter is trying to be “more like a business,” with the associated implication being that advertisements become somehow necessary when you are a business. Advertisements can be necessary to monetise the client development, or they can be necessary if your business is the serving of advertisements.

    I bought a copy of this app (as Tweetie) with my own money. It does not need to have advertisements in it to subsidise the development of the client. In fact Twitter promised quite explicitly when they bought Tweetie that they would not introduce advertisements. if this is necessary, they could easily offer a paid version as well as a free one.

    What’s happening here is that Twitter is moving towards advertising as a business. Twitter clearly now sees itself as a stream of adverts, or conversely as a collection of users waiting to be advertised to.

    This is not a necessary change associated with becoming a “real” business as opposed to being a service. This is a purposeful, self-initiated change in their business plan in that they are moving towards Twitter being essentially an advertising service. It’s not unexpected, but it’s far from necessary.

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    1. If it’s not necessary, then how would you propose Twitter monetize the service? Selling clients is not nearly enough.

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      1. I’m not saying I have the answer, just that the article painted it as some kind of inevitable and understandable part of business in general, whereas I see it as a direct move towards a different business model. I’m not so sure that I agree that paid clients couldn’t fund the few servers they use either. They are obviously aiming higher than just sustaining the service, they want cash! Which again, is not necessarily wrong, I just want them to be clear and honest about what they are doing. Using bafflegab like “promoted trends” is just silly for instance. They are adverts.

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  5. I agree with Mr. Bee but will wait for the real rash of user protests when Twitter forces third party devs to include the code for the #dickbar in all future releases of their apps. When people using paid for apps are fed the same thing those using the Twitter app are fed. That is when the #shitstorm will occur and the #dickbar will be a real trend. Then will come the desktop clients. But, those who the old fashion web browser for twitter content will hopefully be able to install the ‘No dickbar’ plugin for Firefox, Safari and the like.

    It will happen, they will notify the devs to include it or be turned off which will affect even those who refuse the updates to future ‘feature enhancements.’ It will no longer matter if you use a paid app, Twitter plans on #Winning!

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  6. I’ve also blogged about how the QuickBar is the first sign of a turning point in twitters evolution and priorities:

    http://www.happybuy.com/blog/2011/crossing-the-line-twitter-begins-trading-user-experience-for-revenue/

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  7. Rather than a utility, I’ve always looked at Twitter as the highway system. We pay directly for utilities, only indirectly for use of the roads.
    Instead of going the advertising supported route as everyone else on the net has, Twitter would probably have been better off going the Craigslist route. Certain commercial accounts pay (the truckers), individuals don’t.

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    1. I agree-why not have a TwitA,TwitB,&TwitAB
      =TwitA=social1=TwitB=business=TwitAB=both combined. This way you get 3 times the twitter power & “the Twit” can get all 3 revenue, while you still have a choice & can choose all 3 if you want…This way would keep business to business & let them make money & still allow for all of the avove! Big thanks to Twitter for being so open minded & supportive;)

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  8. Uninstalled the app. Once again we see twitter go after the investors by annoying the users rather than marketing one of it’s unique selling points.

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  9. Who at your site decided that ‘dickbar’ was a reference to Dick Whoever from Twitter? It’s obviously just a reference to it being a dick move, and Gruber himself confirmed that when asked over Twitter. How about you research before posting something as fact?

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  10. Just for note, the phrase #dickbar did not come about in reference to the CEO’s name. Though, that oversight does make this article more amusing to read.

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    1. The original coinage may not have had anything to do with Dick Costolo, but lots of people who used it seemed to enjoy the fact that it had that meaning as well.

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