In the five years since it first launched, Twitter has become pretty used to weathering storms of protest from users. Issues such as downtime, changing features and government subpoenas have all reared their heads — not to mention a partnership with developers that is sometimes so tempestuous that it appears to be taking relationship advice from Charlie Sheen.
So when the company introduced the latest version of its iPhone app two weeks ago, it must have been expecting a few shouts and murmurs. The problem? The Quick Bar, a piece of advertising inserted onto the screen immediately got up the noses of the great and the good — to the point that it has become more widely known as the “Dick Bar” by some mischievous scamps as a puerile pun that gives a nod to chief executive Dick Costolo.
The bar includes a link to one of the top trending subjects, presumably as a prelude to displaying the Promoted Trends that are one of the ways the company wants to make money. At first people said they hated the bar because it appeared over the top of existing messages. Twitter has since tweaked the appearance so it’s a bit less in-your-face, but a large number of notable names are still upset.
That includes Marco Arment, the developer of Instapaper and Tumblr, who took to his blog yesterday to say that the Quick Bar is “still so offensive” and gave his summary of why:
The Quick Bar isn’t offensive because we don’t want Twitter making money with ads, or because we object to changes in the interface.
It’s offensive because it’s deeply bad, showing complete disregard for quality, product design, and user respect, and we’ve come to expect a lot more from Twitter.
His problem is that Twitter trends just aren’t very useful to individual users, and in many cases can be offensive. I certainly have to agree that trends aren’t much use to me — as I sit here, my top trending topics include #ChurchRealityShows, #ICan’tDateAGirl and Sammy Hagar. Even though I like a bit of Van Halen, I can’t say any of this is particularly worthwhile.
A couple of other notable names chipped in, too. Jeff Rock says he doesn’t want to be subjected to the whims of “mouth-breathing buffoons,” while John Gruber says Arment has ”nailed it.”
It’s so easy to dismiss this as kvetching by a bunch of privileged super-users — “why aren’t you building something just for us? — but I think doing so is a mistake. The fact that the Quick Bar remains controversial a couple of weeks down the line shows the inherent gap between our understanding of what Twitter could do and its ability to fulfill those desires.
The issue, by and large, isn’t that the Trends bar is a bad idea. It’s that the trends aren’t relevant. This seems so obvious that it causes consternation among users. So that irritation (in Marco’s example, the constant appearance of the #Michigan trend, despite the fact that he had no interest in it and it was largely populated by spammers) develops into a series of gripes. Why can’t Twitter do a better job of showing me information that’s worthwhile? Isn’t that the whole point of it?
It’s a fair point. I am willingly giving Twitter huge amounts of information about myself and the people I am interested in. I’m essentially handing over information that other publishers and platforms would pay for — and yet the best it can offer me is a link to some crap about Sammy Hagar.
In fact, doing this seems distinctly at odds with Twitter’s previous guidance. Take this, from the launch information around Promoted Tweets:
We plan to allow Promoted Tweets to be shown by Twitter clients and other ecosystem partners and to expand beyond Twitter search, including displaying relevant Promoted Tweets in your timelines in a way that is useful to you.
Giving me more targeted information not only seems like it should be possible. It seems like it’s part of Twitter’s mission.
Nobody is saying Twitter is wrong to want to make money from the Quick Bar — far from it. The critics are actually suggesting Twitter should be doing things that make the Quick Bar more relevant, and therefore more profitable. After all, there’s no doubt that targeted, responsive advertising that understands what a user is looking for can be hugely valuablel you only have to look at Google and Facebook to understand the size of a business like that.
But five years on from the first ever messages sent by Twitter’s founders, actions like this are bound to make people wonder whether they really know what it is they’ve built. The Quick Bar, as it stands, is an impediment to what Twitter says it should be doing for users — and until it changes that, it’s going to continue to generate the same anger that we’re seeing right now.