For a while now I have wanted to write a post comparing what I see going on with Twitter to the rise of MySpace. I was a very early adopter on MySpace and leveraged that site for all I could on a personal and professional level. It was a social network that I knew inside and out, including how people gamed certain portions of it. Unfortunately I was late to the game in posting about this. Techcrunch had a guest post written by Mrinal Desai that covered some of the main points that I was thinking about. Here are the core similarities according to Mrinal:
• There is a competition for followers similar to collecting “friends” on MySpace
• Anonymity is normal on both Twitter and Myspace, unlike Facebook
• Fake profiles are proliferating
• Real celebrity profiles are also proliferating, but they are often maintained by someone else for marketing, leading to spam
• Finally, the one most evident visually—services like Twitback, Twitterbacks and Twitterimage help you customize your profiles. You can compare Britney Spear’s profiles on Twitter, MySpace and Facebook respectively (see screenshot below)
I agree with all his points although I am less interested in the design aspect. Mrinal expands a little bit on some of these points but takes it into a different direction than what I originally wanted to cover. So with a tip of the hate to Mrinal and his main points I want to expand on a two of them.
There is a competition for followers similar to collecting “friends” on MySpace
As MySpace grew people saw what was happening to people on MySpace that had a large amount of “friends”. You had a makeup artists getting a clothing line and posing in Playboy. There was an import model getting a record deal and a reality show. You had a guy with a mullet generate advertising revenue because tens of thousands people had added him as a friend. New users saw these people as an example of what they could leverage the site for.
More importantly programmers saw the blind ambition by these new users and created ways for people to generate these numbers through automated adding programs, friend trains, and even flipping popular pre-built accounts on EBay. A secondary market was created, people were even selling older profiles with lower user IDs so you would show up earlier on people’s friends’ lists.
With Twitter you are seeing the same thing happen and in a much more rapid fashion. While there have been legitimate tools developed to improve Twitter including improvements to search, managing your account, and improving the interface there has also been a rise in applications gained to mass add and game the system as much as possible. Additionally because of this we are seeing a rise in spam.
I think the problems that Twitter faces with the manipulation of the system are real and if left unchecked are going to cause a lot of people losing interest in using the service sooner rather than later. MySpace combated the problem by heavily relying on CAPTCHA technology, almost to the point where it became a massive pain to use the site. (Now you can confirm your computer to lower the amount of CAPTCHAs you encounter.) Twitter needs to figure out a way to curb the abuse of their system.
The Rise of the Celebrity
MySpace did a really good job early on featuring the content of the people participating on the site. Between featured spots throughout the site, blog rankings, music rankings, and even featured users, MySpace was sharing the work of the people generating content for the site. As the popularity of the site grew and more celebrities as well as corporate entities became interested in it, the content of the users disappeared in lieu of the content by the famous.
While Twitter doesn’t necessarily have the same mediums that MySpace does to feature members you can see the increased usage by celebrities, which is pushing down the early adopters to the service and the new media “celebrities” in rankings and even in media coverage. I don’t think it is a bad thing ultimately but you can see the parallel trend between the sites and a celebrity culture develop.
Twitter Approaches Support in a Positive Manner
In the Techcrunch post Mrinal does touch on some of the techniques Twitter is using to combat some of the issues it is facing from fake profiles to spam, including the removal of the capability for people to autofollow. One point he didn’t touch on here is something that I think sets apart the two services and how they are run, transparent technical help versus none at all.
With MySpace there was no real forum for technical support discussions or interaction with the MySpace staff. Volunteers staffed the forums on the site. These volunteers had profiles with special moderator abilities and were not even centrally organized really except for a basic group on MySpace. There was no direct contact with a MySpace representative. To contact customer support you had to go through a never-ending e-mail process.
Something that I think Twitter has done right is running a support section with people that actually includes interaction from the staff. That is a huge difference for a lot of reasons. You have a much more informed user base when it comes to issues when you publically answer support questions. (This allows them to answer questions from other users that might not get to the support section.) Also it is so much more transparent. With MySpace support you could manipulate the staff that worked there pretty easily and get profiles deleted of other users, get into accounts that weren’t yours, and basically cheat the system as much as possible. As a whole dealing with Twitter support is a much more positive experience.
While people harp on the technical issues of the site, scalability, and other issues, I like to look on the qualitiy of the community and the dark possibility that the user experience can degrade quickly if we maintain the current course. Their transparent support is the main reason that I think Twitter can overcome a lot of the challenges that are in front of them.