What are Walled Gardens and why should you care?

There’s more than a hint of derision to people’s responses to any changes at Twitter these days.

Claims that the social network doesn’t understand why its audience uses it abound when there’s any change. Just look at the outcry when it changed its ‘favourite’ star icon to a ‘like’ heart, one of the most minor changes imaginable. And yet it inspired countless thinkpieces and articles about Twitter’s apparent lack of understanding about what made it successful in the first place, many of which pointed out its stalled user growth and poor financial performance with malicious glee.

So imagine the outcry when it was announced that Twitter was considering abandoning its core concept, the “beautiful constraint” of the 140 character limit per post, and replacing it with a 10,000 character limit. 

Many people seem to be accusing Twitter of aping other social networks and blogging sites, with Facebook and Medium being among the most common comparisons. But, as Robert Shrimsley, the managing editor of FT.com points out:

“Well, turning the $15bn Twitter (less than half its market capitalisation a year ago) into the $290bn Facebook is not an altogether bad aspiration for a chief executive. Facebook’s most recent quarterly profit exceeded Twitter’s revenues. Twitter’s growth in users has stalled and advertising growth is slowing.” 

And even if Twitter were to implement a 10,000 character limit per posts that appear on timelines (which it almost certainly will not, as we’ll get to in a minute), that’s not to say that every post would suddenly become 10,000 words long and turn the microblogging site into a solid wall of text from one person at a time:

(For reference, those figures come from here – Facebook average post, and Twitter average post

But there certainly seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how the increased character limit will be displayed. So let’s get something clear – the chances of 10,000 character posts appearing on your timeline are vanishingly small

Instead, it’s far, far, far more likely that the change will allow users to post as normal but include an option to expand the tweet into the full post. It’s unclear whether that will entail truncating the post that appears on the timeline or whether users will be able to write a short, 140 character ‘preview’ tweet that will appear in their followers’ timelines instead. 

Why do I think that? Well, the source of the “beautiful constraint” quote above is none other than Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. In a post to Twitter which, very pointedly included the vast majority of its text as an attached image, he explains (without confirming anything) the thinking behind the rumoured update:

We will never lose that feeling.” 

As he points out, people are already finding ways around the 140 character limit. But attaching a photo of the text is at best a stopgap, a workaround, and that along with the phenomenon of the tweetstorm appear to validate his claims.

So, no, the user experience of Twitter isn’t suddenly going to become poring through reams of text in search of the pertinent information. Instead, it’s probably going to be much more navigable for users, especially since – crucially – the move seems designed to eliminate the need for users to leave Twitter at all. 

Walled gardens

Concerns about UX, then, are misplaced. But concerns about what the change means for publishers and the open internet are legitimate.

For a while now publishers have had concerns about the power of social networks. First, that changes to how they weight content would mean their articles shared on Facebook and the like could be hidden by an uncaring algorithm.

And then, when it became clear that cooperating with social networks was the only way to reach the audience numbers they need via Instant Articles, the concern became whether the publisher’s own sites and identities might become vestigial as their audiences spent all their time online within Facebook, without the need to venture out into the web outside its walled garden. As Slate’s Will Oremus explains:

“The social network is using its enormous active user base to persuade the media to give up control of their content and hand it over to Facebook. If they don’t, they’re likely to find that their links are bypassed by Facebook’s billion daily active users in favor of videos and stories that appear at full length directly in the News Feed.”

It makes sense for the social networks – who hold the strings now – to want to retain users within their walls. ‘Time spent’ is a crucial metric of audience engagement, and increasing the amount of time users spend with a social network increases the amount of ads they can sell. And since both Facebook and Twitter make the vast, vast majority of their money from advertising…

…in a way it’s surprising it took them this long to get to try something like this. For publishers who don’t have a business model flexible enough to allow work across distributed platforms, then, it’s bad news.

That’s not to say that this will be a slam-dunk for Twitter. For one thing, it’s hard to say whether this will be enough to stimulate user growth, which Twitter will eventually need regardless of whether this scheme succeeds in increasing engagement with its existing users.

But as the response to even the thought of changing anything about Twitter demonstrated, for many of those existing users Twitter can’t make changes without betraying its original mission.

By |2016-01-07T00:01:00+00:00January 7th, 2016|Analysis|Comments Off on What are Walled Gardens and why should you care?

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