The news, which was broken casually in a Tweet, has been covered mostly from a user experience perspective– as an ego-stroking “nice addition” at best and potentially “spammy” at worst. But it strikes me as a signal of a bigger underlying story. Launching more email notifications this late in the game could be a red flag that Twitter is trying to remedy a stickiness problem.
For years, Twitter has sent its users emails sparingly: when a new user starts following an account, and when a user receives a direct message. Twitter’s strategy in this department has contrasted with how often other social networking sites such as Facebook send email notifications.
Since email notification technology is, of course, nothing new, Twitter’s decision to stay out of users’ inboxes has always seemed like a reflection of a greater company philosophy. Twitter Co-Founder Evan Williams told the New York Times in 2007 that Twitter “adds a layer of information and connection to people’s lives that wasn’t there before” and “has the potential to be a really substantial part of how people keep in touch with each other.” In an interview with NPR earlier this year, Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone said he “definitely [spends] way more time reading tweets than writing tweets.” By not sending a lot of emails for all these years, Twitter may well have been trying to prove a point: Receiving emails about Twitter activity would eventually seem just as ridiculous as getting phone calls about your inbox.
Viewed from this perspective, it’s hard to imagine the move to send more email notifications was made without an internal debate. This week’s news could reflect a major concession that many people aren’t engaging with Twitter in the way the founders initially hoped. And if there’s one thing that email notifications help with, it’s stickiness: the quality that makes users come back to a website or app again and again.
This wouldn’t be the first time in recent months Twitter has been forced to abandon a long-held philosophy in favor of real-world priorities. Twitter’s recent decision to implement advertising was a major about-face for the company, whose founders vowed for years to keep ads out of the business model. But as a company that has received $360 million in venture capital since taking on its first round in 2007, the pressure is increasingly on for Twitter to prove itself with metrics and money — priorities that could leave some aspects of the company’s personal style by the wayside.