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Summary:

What are Twitter’s core design, product and engineering capabilities — stuff they are really good at. What is Twitter’s core competency? Those are tough questions for the company to ask itself and answer — for it would help define and set expectations and strategy that is lasting.

Twitter The Today Show screenshot header profile picture

Yesterday, Twitter announced that it was launching its own version of photo filters and photo editing tools. And like all news around social networks — Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — it got the treatment normally reserved for the Kardashians. But, then we do live in the golden age of narcissism thanks to this weapon of amplified narcissism.

Dick Costolo Twitter Instagram filters face

The news was announced by a Twitter designer. Nowhere was it mentioned in the post that Twitter didn’t really build these filters and photo editing tools. It had outsourced these features to New York-based startup Aviary, which has been building these tools for others for a long time. When I asked Twitter why it chose Aviary, I got this answer: “We wanted to work with a company that has strong expertise in mobile photo filtering. We partnered with Aviary, and we’re grateful to them for powering our filters and effects.”

Photos outsourced

Twitter, by the way, had these filters on its product roadmap for a while, but somehow never built them. Of course, this isn’t the first time Twitter has outsourced its photo needs to someone else. It was using Photobucket for its photo storage needs, though today the company announced its own storage system.

Twitter outsourcing its photo features twice is in sharp contrast with Facebook, which developed its own photo hosting and sharing capabilities and has in fact devoted immense technical resources to the photo division. It made photos the core focus of the Facebook experience. Most like to think that Facebook bought Instagram for its photo app and filters, but in reality that (almost a) billion dollar deal was all about the social network, the engagement and the shifting audiences.

If photos are a core Twitter feature, then why is the company outsourcing it to someone else? I mean, it is not that the company is short of money or people — it has a billion dollars in its back pocket, it is doing about $300 million (or higher) in revenue and has about 1,300 or so employees. And if photos are not core to the Twitter experience, then why is it picking sides and fights with Instagram and others?

The question is not just about photos; it is actually much bigger and goes beyond this one feature set. Sure, I can make a wild statement like “Twitter has lost its product edge” or “Twitter can’t really build anything interesting.” Or I can point out that it introduced a major product overhaul a year ago. Or the note the fact that it is conflicted between the need for revenues and the need for a long-term product vision. But that would not be getting to the root of the problem.

What do you stand for?

I asked a Twitter spokesperson to describe Twitter’s core design, product and engineering capabilities — stuff they are really good at. What is Twitter’s core competency? So far, no comment.

I don’t expect an answer, but I had to ask. In fact, it is a question that Twitter should ask itself. Because in doing so it will be able to confront the deeper issues that have plagued its relationship with who used to be its customers — people.

RCA TELEVISONAnd if Twitter feels that its core competency is serving as a vehicle for brands to reach its audience (you know, like the old media companies) then it should focus all its energy on making sure that it can surface those brand messages inside Twitter’s core and fundamental product: its feed (and not its website). In doing so, the company can spend all its resources on making the Twitter feed amazing, reliable and unbreakable. If it wants to be the television network of the 21st century, then why not be as resilient and as constant as the television itself?

From the minute I saw Twitter five years ago, I fell in love with the service because of its ability to be a post-communication platform that enabled interactions. That ability to encourage real-time interactions — intimate or public — makes Twitter a fairly unique web service. Of course, its willingness to let the Twitter community define its future made it more disruptive.

That is my understanding of Twitter, and that really doesn’t matter. What matters is how well Twitter understands itself. Because by understanding itself, Twitter can then start to normalize its relationship with developers and impose practical restraints on what people can or can’t do. For example, it can say, thou shall not Tivo these tweets. Or you Mr. Developer, you cannot form a reputation/ranking system based on Twitter’s feed.

(By the way, shouldn’t Twitter be building a more official version of Klout? How come they have not shut that crappy service down?)

It would also mean that Twitter can allow developers who want to build front-end apps on top of the feed as long as it can bring more eyeballs to the feed. Sort of like how it doesn’t matter if you see Big Bang Theory on a Samsung or a Vizio TV set.

It would also allow the company to go back to what made it so wonderful – a network that had the intimacy of one to one connections, the reach of a one-to-many network and freedom to be used on any device, any platform and in any app.

  1. Twitter’s feed is the lifeblood of the company, powering the ecosystem of apps, users, and organizations that depend on the service daily.

    It’s disheartening to see Twitter emulate some of the worst ideas of traditional broadcasters, simply in order to be more akin to them. Twitter is moving toward an oddly Stalinist, command-and-control platform, seen through content lockdown, developer lockout, and user relations that border on the sociopathic.

    How long will it be before their plans backfire and the company is in crisis?

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    1. Christian Perry: strongs words. Do you want to elaborate?

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  2. Twitter needs to decide if users or VITs are core? That is, is goal interaction between users or spam from super users? So far the best of Twitter has come from bottom up. I’m not holding my breath awaiting their answer…

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  3. OH: every great idea starts as a movement, becomes a business and finally turns into a racket.

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    1. Priyanka Chauhan Wednesday, December 12, 2012

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  4. Twitter lacks a North Star – it’s floating aimlessly (good luck Marc Andreessen and investment kin getting a ROI on Twitter investment!)

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  5. Great article, and something that I’ve written on myself for an upcoming blogpost: the problem with these social media networks aimed at the consumer (rather than business) market is that their business plan is fundamentally the same as the business plan of the Underpants Gnomes in South Park:
    1. Steal Underpants (or in this case, 1. Get loads of users)
    2. ???
    3. Profit.

    Both Facebook and Twitter suffer from this problem. They are both GREAT at step 1 – Facebook has around 1 billion users, Twitter around 500 million or so. What other media platform can boast those kinds of numbers?!

    The problem is that they haven’t worked out what to do in step 2. LinkedIn, for example, has – and has built a steady and growing revenue stream based on the tried-and-tested model of recruitment and networking. What are Twitter and Facebook doing to try and monetise the service? Well, the best they have come up with is advertising s**t in people’s news feeds and Twitter streams by allowing companies to sponsor posts. If the core competency of Twitter and Facebook is building a service to be used by millions of people, then the one thing guaranteed to throw a spanner in the works is sticking in irrelevant advertising which simply disrupts the user experience. Furthermore, there is limited scope for how much advertising they can stick in before people get pissed off. MySpace is an excellent example – one of the key factors (although not the sole factor) in its original downfall was the saturation of advertising on the site as it attempted to monetise itself.

    I completely agree that Twitter needs to be asking itself these questions. Twitter as a service is fantastic and something which I do think, for the most part, is bettering mankind’s overall experience – yes, there is an awful lot of dross on it, such as endless photos of people’s lunches, but its ability to bring people together in a realtime environment is second-to-none (far better than Facebook for example). Just look at how it is used in times of crisis – people use it following natural disasters to coordinate relief efforts, find loved one etc. How amazing is that?

    I believe that it will be very difficult for Twitter to monetise its core service. However, one of the interesting things is that it is very easy to make money using Twitter – just look at the scores of companies that use its data to create viable business models. At my university there is a company that uses Twitter to create an incredibly powerful analytical tool focusing on politics, and they are successfully selling it to media agencies, PR agencies, private enterprises etc. because knowing what is going on in politics, and who is doing it, is valuable knowledge. I would argue that therefore one of Twitter’s core competencies is knowledge creation, and if they want to start making money then the way to get it is to widen access to their services for these companies, but start taking cuts of revenue or charging them outright. Businesses will pay, and will pay big bucks. Consumers are very hard to make a lot of money out of, and if you try to outwardly and overly exploit them with advertising then they will respond by using the service less or not using it at all.

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  6. Interesting perspective…seems that Twitter like any relatively new business is consistently defining who they are and want to be.

    Anyone know when the new photo filters become on twitter?

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  7. people like you are going to spoil twitter. “brands reaching customers”… why don’t you just shoot me in the head.

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  8. What’s really mind blowing is how obsessed Twitter has become with Instagram and becoming more like it. So much so that they very first screenshot on the App Store, instead of showing twitter, shows a photo and filters…seriously ?

    http://cl.ly/image/3Y1V1Q0g1M28

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  9. While Photo sharing forms a core part of the facebook experience, for twitter the relevance of photo sharing and storing is still an infant concept which they haven’t fully utilized. This is a necessary progression on Twitter’s part and has been a long time coming. The below link throws some light on the similar functionality..

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  10. It would be easy to say Twitter is moving away from their core but the idea they brought to the market was/is so simple that it needed to be built upon. I can’t see Twitter surviving unless they move to something more engaging and find a way to get those half a billion to do more than send 140-character tweets. The world moves on too quickly to rest on that business case.

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    1. You have a point about resting laurels but Twiiter needs to innovate not emulate! Figure out what about the core service can be improved or blown wide open and focus on that as your next evolution. Great ideas rarely go bad per se, but they can be turned into something you no longer want to use quite easily.

      I could care less about photos but I still use the network based on my interest and that seems the logical place to innovate!

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      1. Ric

        Totally agree with you and I would say the big opportunity for them is to make the feed amazing and the #discover tab as their next big offering, regardless of photos, videos or whatever. The ability to surface interesting things could provide more stickiness than anything.

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  11. The twitter blog post did mention that that the photo filters came from Aviary: “We’re grateful to our partner, Aviary, for powering our filters and effects.”

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  12. Great read. We suggested in December of 2011 that Twitter create a Klout-like service (see Tweak 12 here: http://cnb.cx/zn98Cu). While I do think Twitter should not be chasing after Instagram, which is photo-sharing service and very different from what makes Twitter great, I’d like to view photo-filters on Twitter as complementary. It was already the home of millions of pictures, why not give users the ability to filter them? On that note, I’d rather see Twitter fix the more important things. 13 tweaks for 2013 here: http://cnb.cx/TUKung Again, terrific read, Om.

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  13. I wonder if this is just for iteration speed. I don’t know how complex building filters are but if there is a whole company, Aviary, which works on this kind of thing, it may be something that takes time to get right. Twitter don’t want to release a core feature that sucks. So perhaps they’ll take the same approach as they did with the photo storage backend – outsource for initial speed whilst they figure out the usage patterns, then build their own custom system without rushing it. Real world usage is the best way to see what works and what doesn’t, then build the right system internally.

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  14. Great, thoughtful post, Om. I think that answering this question will resolve the strange asymmetry that many in the tech universe feel about Twitter – love the product, but feel uneasy about the company.

    Is there a company in recent times that has been so loved on one hand, and buggered on the other?

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    1. Thanks Netgarden. Appreciate your comments

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  15. Engines are a pretty core component of cars, but many automobile manufacturers successfully outsource their production (ex: Toyota & Yamaha).

    The “make or buy” decision takes into consideration a number of factors – cost, learning curve, time to market, organizational structure, resource allocation, and so on. Twitter’s decision on filters is neither inherently good or bad, it just reflects a number of parameters.

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  16. OM, I honestly think you’ve gotten caught up in the Kardashian news vortex.

    Filters and photo editing have nothing do with Twitter’s future.

    Twitter Cards have everything to do with it. Letting people natively ad card content to the stream is incredibly valuable to the company. It’s great they used Aviary, that way they don’t have to have engineerings tinkering with currently in-vogue technology when all they really want is a way for people to add photos in a fun and easy way.

    Where Twitter is really competing with Instagram is offering a stream of photos. Twitter has barely gotten started at this, but if you go to my profile page on web you can start a slideshow view or on the app you can endless scroll through. Twitter will be doing a full refresh of this so images are just as easy to scroll thru as the feed for every user. That is what Instagram should be scared of that Twitter’s photo feed (which displays all photos with twitter card support) will be as compelling as my Instagram photo feed.

    So everything is about the feed, and that is what twitter stands for. Everything else is just Kardashian kabuki theatre

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    1. Tedr

      I would like to respond to this comment, but then I would respond with the content of this post. You are looking at all these tactical minor moves of theirs. The question I am putting forth: what is Twitter and the answer to that question defines its business strategy — nothing to do with filters, cards, or whatever little stuff they throw out there.

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  17. “I asked a Twitter spokesperson to describe Twitter’s core design, product and engineering capabilities — stuff they are really good at. What is Twitter’s core competency? So far, no comment.”

    Twitter is a communication platform.

    Its core competency is and should be focused on maintaining and easing communication. For example, pretty fucking impressive that they have scaled the service so that it can handle 340,000,000 tweets per day.

    Honestly, who gives a shit if they use in house dev to make filters or not?

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    1. I agree – but, like I argued in my comment above, their core competency isn’t so much communication, it is what that communication represents: real-time knowledge generation and sharing. That is the source of their competitive advantage, because no other social network is able to do the same thing. Facebook? Yes, plenty of status updates, but due to their crummy algorithm, it isn’t realtime. I often get things appearing at the top of my Facebook feed that were posted hours ago. LinkedIn? Tends to have very rich data on user profiles, but people don’t use it enough to make it a communication platform – the average LinkedIn user only checks their account a couple of times a month.

      LinkedIn has taken advantage of its core competency – business networking – and has built a viable business model based on online recruitment with a competitive advantage that cannot be matched by online job boards (people only put their CVs on job boards when looking for a new job. Most candidates are ‘passive’, and yet many of those passive candidates have searchable LinkedIn profiles!). There is no reason that Twitter cannot leverage its competency in knowledge generation, and I do believe the best way to do that is to open up its firehose to businesses that want to do this kind of big data analysis, and either charge them for it or take a cut of their revenue. Yes, big data has become a buzz-word, but as analytical tools become more and more sophisticated, it is going to become more widely used. All they need to do is get ahead of the game so they can become the only choice for real-time knowledge analysis.

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  18. A company is a scratch. A successful company is a scratch matched to an itch. Twitter, quite possibly, is a scratch that has yet to find its itch. Or to look at it another way – it has yet to define what the problem is that Twitter solves.

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