Now that Twitter is a public company, big changes are sure to come to the beloved micro-blogging service. But will they be what users want?

 

Facebook wasn’t always a coterie of unsolicited event invites and Zynga spam. When the social network first began spreading from college campus to college campus in the mid-aughts, long before it found itself on the path to publicly traded hell, it was a fantastic, practically indispensable communication tool. Until it quickly became dispensable, that is. Now, several years after its peak, Facebook is reportedly shedding droves of users annually, among them the ever-important teen demographic.

That could soon be Twitter’s sordid fate, as the company has followed in Facebook’s footsteps with its own (admittedly much more successful) IPO this week. After ages of speculation and months of anticipation, the social network began trading on the New York Stock Exchange, ballooning to $45 a share by closing time—nearly a 73 percent increase from original estimates

For Twitter employees and shareholders, this is a wild success. But for everyone else—especially those of us who use the social network obsessively—some attendant disappointment may be around the corner. Now that it is no longer privately held, Twitter will inevitably begin to shift its focus from consumer to  investor satisfaction; it will have to deliver on the promise of growth that comes with going public. As stock value, more than membership or engagement or customer satisfaction, becomes the primary measure of success, Twitter will have to implement the strategy its business requires, even when it’s not what its users want. 

More recently, though, Twitter has launched two features that foreshadow the possibility of yet more frustrating post-IPO changes ... With images and thread-like conversations getting prime focus, is Twitter even Twitter anymore? Or is it Facebook-in-training?

For those who don’t have the capacity, or desire, to broadcast their thoughts, jokes, or links into an unknowable expanse—as opposed to the closed environment of Facebook—joining Twitter likely seems like a futile, incontrovertibly narcissistic endeavor. It may go to great lengths to nix that perception, possibly at the sake of user experience.

Recent moves suggest it has its sights on being more than a place for people to trade 140-character tweets—certainly not when there’s money to be made. The runaway success of Facebook-owned Instagram and Twitter’s own purchase of Vine, which has grown into an increasingly rarefied world of esoteric humor and niche celebrity, gives yet more ground to theories that Twitter plans to continue its advance toward multimedia.

Unlike, say, Facebook or even the marginal Google+, Twitter is not particularly intuitive and, therefore, not inviting to masses of new users. There’s the plainly obvious: that few people outside of its existing members are likely to know what exactly an @reply or a trending topic is or how a ‘Fav’ is different from a ‘Like’. But there’s also the fact that its purely chronology-based timeline structure, in which all tweets are given the same standing regardless of importance or relevance, is geared towards users who can’t tear away. The interface makes it difficult to drop-in casually without being totally lost; by extension, Twitter is a platform that necessitates obsession.

To redress that, presumably in a bid to grow its ushership into one that is more attractive to advertisers and therefore more monetizable, Twitter has begun introducing new features. First, last year’s arrival of the #Discover tab, which highlights popular tweets and tweeters, betrayed Twitter’s concern that the purely linear interface may not drive content in a meaningful enough way. We grumbled our way through that ordeal until we discovered how easy it is to ignore the tab.

More recently, though, Twitter has launched two features that foreshadow the possibility of yet more frustrating post-IPO changes: the widely reviled blue line that links conversations together and the equally unwelcome addition of in-line images. Both of these deeply upend the site’s fundamental premise as a primarily text-based, marginally conversational service. With images and thread-like conversations getting prime focus, is Twitter even Twitter anymore? Or is it Facebook-in-training?

Over the past few weeks, those two changes have been so off-putting that it’s been easier to spend considerably less time on Twitter—I drop in with my own tweets, but feel no need to stay for the party. I first joined in 2008, but since 2011, when a broken ankle kept me in bed for two months straight, I’ve been refreshing Twitter as many times a day as there are minutes. That I have been able to easily resist its pull, not because I’m suddenly less interested than the tweets or links shared by my circle but because the upgraded interface derail my timeline’s momentum, is cause for alarm.

Just like Facebook, the worst thing Twitter can do is to encourage us to live without it.