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Summary:

As Twitter turns five, the service continues to struggle with some mid-life problems, including a growing tension with both its user and developer communities. For lessons in how not to handle that kind of thing, all Twitter has to do is look at Digg.

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Birthdays are a natural time for reflection, even if you’re only five years old, which is the age Twitter officially turned today. It may not seem like much, but that’s about 35 in Internet years, which means the company is close to being middle-aged — and Twitter has definitely been struggling with some mid-life challenges lately. Another much-hyped web startup is also facing some middle-age sag: Digg turned six in December and has been struggling after a failed redesign and the departure of founder Kevin Rose. And Digg’s decline from pioneering Web 2.0 service to social media also-ran contains some lessons for its younger peers.

In some ways, it’s hard to believe that Twitter has been around for five years. Launched by Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone as a side project within Evan Williams’ company Odeo — which was later shut down, with Williams taking over from Dorsey as CEO of Twitter, in a move that caused some bad blood — Twitter didn’t seem like much when it first launched, even to a die-hard web junkie like Om. Like most users, I thought the service was fairly useless when I joined in early 2007, and I spent months wondering what I was supposed to do with it before a critical mass of interesting people joined and value started to emerge.

Twitter’s status as a powerful real-time news platform didn’t really become clear until it was used to transmit updates about the forest fires in California in 2007 and during an earthquake in China in 2008. Gradually, people started to see it as something other than just a way of talking about what you were having for lunch — and when Janis Krums posted a picture of a plane crash-landing in the Hudson in 2009, the reality of Twitter started to go mainstream.

Every subsequent event, from the earthquake in Haiti to the recent uprisings in the Middle East, has reinforced the idea that the service dramatically lowers the barriers to entry for publishing, as Williams put it last year.

More than anything else, however, Twitter has become a platform for community — whether it’s a community of people interested in revolutions in the Middle East, or a community that is obsessed with the latest product release from Apple, or a community that wants to know what Charlie Sheen is doing right now. And one of the hallmarks of a social service like Twitter and Facebook is that the more people use it to connect with each other, the more they feel like they own it to some extent — and that feeling is what Twitter is currently fighting as it tries to mature as a company and as a business.

Twitter's Fail Whale

You can see that in the outraged responses to the recent Quick Bar fiasco, and to the shutting down of third-party clients like Bill Gross’s UberMedia — which has been trying to develop its own competing monetization strategy for the social network — and to the rollout of services such as Promoted Tweets and Promoted Trends. As I’ve argued before, users have grown so used to seeing Twitter as a utility that every move the company makes to add money-making layers is seen as an affront in some sense, like someone invited you to a party at their house and now is asking you to settle up your bar bill.

Although the two services are different in many ways, Digg has also been struggling with the same kinds of issues. And some of those struggles are directly related to Twitter, since Digg’s link-sharing features — which were once a pioneering example of what some called Web 2.0 — have been largely superseded by the growth of Twitter and Facebook. But Digg has also rolled out its own poorly-received design features: the service launched Digg v4 last August and the new design was roundly criticized as unstable and (more importantly) a breach of faith with the traditional Digg community. The site’s traffic plummeted, the new CEO rolled back most of the new features and laid off almost 40 percent of the staff, and founder Kevin Rose is moving on to start a new venture.

So what are the lessons that Digg has to teach Twitter? One is that even pioneering services, whose founders appear on the covers of leading business magazines, can be overtaken by events, and by other services that don’t even exist yet. Yes, it’s true that Twitter is supposedly worth $10 billion, and is much larger than Digg ever was. But that lesson still applies (as MySpace is well aware). It’s easy to grow complacent and inward-looking, and thereby miss the warning signs of declining growth, or be too slow to react.

The other lesson is that the core of a social network is the community of users — and in Twitter’s case, the community of developers or ecosystem that has grown up around the service as well.

Alienating either or both of those groups is a very risky strategy, as Digg has discovered since it unilaterally rolled out its unwelcome series of changes with little or no discussion with users. The hard-boiled approach that Twitter is taking could pay off for the company if it succeeds in building features that bring in revenue, but at the same time those changes in attitude could ruin the sense of community that has made the network so powerful, and that is something that would be very difficult — if not impossible — to recapture. So happy birthday, Twitter, and welcome to middle age.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Will Clayton

  1. Don’t sell out? That’s what Twitter can learn from Digg. Also listen to your users!

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