The network's the thing

Last week Instagram announced it was supporting more than just square aspect ratios for photos and videos. This led of course to a Slate article decrying the move, because Slate is that friend that has to be contrarian on every topic all the time, just to be annoying.

The square confines Instagram users to a small area of maneuver. It forces us to consider what details are essential, and which can be cropped out. It spares us from indulgence of the landscape and the false promise of the panorama.
But Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is in the business of accommodating its users, not challenging them. One of the problems with the square, the company explained in its announcement, is that “you can’t capture the Golden Gate Bridge from end to end.” This example speaks to the needs of a certain kind of Instagram user who enjoys planting his flag on settled territory. Like an iPhone videographer at a Taylor Swift concert, the guy Instagramming the Golden Gate Bridge is not creating a rare or essential document, only proof that he saw it with his own eyes.
And why did he bother doing that, anyway? Clearly, because photographs cannot really capture the scope of the Golden Gate Bridge, or St. Peter’s Basilica, or the view from your car window as you drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. The impulse to capture these moments on camera is shaded by the knowledge that the moment, in all its immediacy, is too large to fit in a frame of any size.

I don't think my friend who snapped a pic of her daughter this morning or the friend who memorialized the little leaf the barista made in the foam on his latte was contemplating how wonderful it was that they were sparing me from the “indulgence of the landscape and the false promise of the panorama” but what do I know. I'm fairly certain the guy Instagramming the Golden Gate Bridge (I've done that a few times on Instagram) realizes he's not “creating a rare or essential document” but it never hurts to remind him, I'm sure he appreciates being set in his artistic place.

I'm glad Instagram is accommodating the additional aspect ratios, and it's a sign of how powerfully their network has matured. People confuse arbitrary limits on social networks—Twitter's 140 character limit, Instagram's square aspect ratio and limited filters, to take two prominent examples—with their core asset, which is the network itself. Sure, the limits can affect the nature of the content shared, but Instagram is above else a pure and easy way to share visual content with other people and get their feedback. That they started allowing videos and now differing aspect ratios doesn't change the core value of the network, which is the graph.

In fact, this move by Instagram validates the power of their network. If they were failing they either wouldn't have survived long enough to make such a move or it would be positioned as some desperate pivot. Instagram is dealing from a position of strength here, expanding the flexibility of its tools to meet the needs of a still growing user base.

In the same way, Twitter should have lifted the 140 character limit on DMs much earlier than they did. The power of Twitter, deep down, is that it's a public messaging protocol. The 140 character limit is not its secret power. The network is.

I'd actually remove the 140 character limit on Tweets as well, though such a move would undoubtedly spawn even more of a public outcry than Instagram's move since so many power users of Twitter are journalists. Yes, a 140 character limit enforces some concision in writing, rewarding the witty among us, but it also alienates a lot of people who hate having to edit a thought multiple times just to fit in the arbitrary limit. Lots of those people abandoned Twitter and publish on Facebook instead. Twitter could always choose to limit how much of a Tweet to display in the Timeline so as to allow for a higher vertical density of Tweets in the timeline, when people are scanning.

Look at how many users of Twitter have to break long thoughts across multiple Tweets, in Tweetstorms or just long linked series of Tweets. Many of those are power users, yet I still see power users do it incorrectly every day, making it really difficult to follow the entire sequence. Users who want to link tweets in a Tweetstorm or just to link their own Tweets together in a series should reply to each of their Tweets, removing their own username in the process. This allows readers who click one tweet to easily see the rest of the Tweets in the series, and removing one's own username adds back some characters for the content and prevents it from seeming as if you're talking to yourself like a crazy person. That many have no idea how to do it is just one of Twitter's usability issues. It's a wonderfully elegant public messaging protocol, but its insistence on staying so low level is crazy. Don't even get me started on putting a period before a username in a Tweet, try explaining that to your mother with a straight face.

Here's another example. Look at how many experienced Twitters users now turn to apps like OneShot to attach screenshots of text to their Tweets as photos, to circumvent the 140 character limit. I happen to really enjoy those screenshorts, as they're sometimes called now, and they demonstrate how Twitter could expand their 140 character limit without overwhelming the Timeline: just truncate at some point and add a click to expand function. This is yet another example of users generating useful innovation on top of Twitter when it should be coming from within the company.

Rather than force users to jump through all these hoops to publish longer content, Twitter could just allow users to write more than 140 characters in one Tweet, truncating the whole of it after some limit and posting a Read More button to allow readers to see the rest of the thought. Blasphemy! many will shout. I can already see the pitchforks in the distance. Some good old blasphemy is just what Twitter needs.

Longer character limits would likely increase the ability to follow conversations and dialogues on the service, too. One of the wonderful things about Twitter is that conversations between specific users can be read by other users. That's one of the greatest things about Twitter as a public messaging protocol. But because replies have to fit within 140 characters, often they need to be broken up into multiple Tweets. Many who reply don't realize that unless they hit the reply button on the previous Tweet in the conversation, the dialogue link is broken. Many mistakenly compose a new Tweet to continue the dialogue, not realizing that any reader clicking on that Tweet will not automatically see other Tweets in that conversation. Instead, it will just display by itself, as an orphan.

I run into this multiple times every day on the service, clicking on a Tweet without any easy way to figure out what it was in response to. If a lot of time has passed, it's often impossible to piece the conversation back together. It drives me crazy. I tried explaining how to piece broken conversation threads like this back together to a few people who abandoned Twitter and then realized I sounded like a madman. Why, in this day and age, should they have to learn such low level nonsense? Threaded conversations are, for the most part, a solved UI issue in this day and age.

I'm not done with the character limits, so hold your disgust. You may wish to bring more than just your pitchforks after I'm done. Every Twitter conversation that involves more than two people devolves into a short series of retorts that eventually dies because each additional username consumes more of the 140 character limit, until there is no more room for actual dialogue.

It's absurd, but it's always been that way. Why usernames count towards the 140 character limit has always befuddled me. Meaningful conversation always has to migrate off of Twitter to some other platform, for no reason other than a stubborn allegiance to an arbitrary limit which made sense in the SMS age but now is a defect. If you're going to keep a character limit (could we at least double it?), let's not have usernames count against the limit. In fact, if I hit reply to someone's Tweet, do we even need to insert that person's username at the front of the Tweet? You can still send the notification to that user that I replied to their Tweet, and suddenly my reply won't seem so oddly formatted to the average reader. There are plenty of ways to indicate who the message is addressed to through contextual formatting, and if I wanted to mention them explicitly I could always write @username in the Tweet. But it's unnecessary to insert it by default.

Vine is perhaps the only network whose chief content-creation limit seems intrinsically part of the network, and that's because video is one type of content which can't be scanned, in which each additional second of content imposes a linear attention cost of one second on the viewer. A six minute video costs the reader 60X the attention cost that a 6 second video does, and to even create a 6 second video of any interest requires some clever editing to produce a coherent narrative. A Vine video joke has its own distinct pace, it's like a two line riddle, often a 4.5 second setup with a 1.5 second punchline (at least that's the pacing in most Vines in my home feed).

This 6-second limit still constrains the size of Vine's userbase, and they may be okay with that. I think that's fine. I enjoy Vine, it's its own art form. Still, the 6 second limit means a lot of people don't turn to it for a lot of their video sharing. It's not easy to come up with a succinct 6 second video clip.

Look at how Snapchat has evolved to see another company realizing that its power is not the initial constraint but the network. Snapchat still imposes a 10 second limit on video length. But now you can string many videos together into My Story. This was brilliant on their part; it allows viewers to skip any boring clip with one tap, but it allows the creator to tell longer stories simply by shooting multiple snaps in sequence. They lowered the content generation cost on creators without meaningfully increasing it for viewers.

Furthermore, Snapchat now allows you to download your Stories to your camera roll. Those who claim ephemerality is the key to Snapchat's success might panic at such a change, but all it demonstrates is that they realize they now have users for whom ephemerality isn't the main draw of the service. They haven't confused an arbitrary early limit for being the root of their success, and they understand the underlying power of their platform.

Perhaps more than any other social network, Facebook has long recognized that their chief asset is their graph. They've made all sorts of major changes to their interface, changes that always leads to huge initial outcries from their users, followed by a fade to silence as users continue to access the service in increasing numbers.

That they recognized this and had the courage of their convictions from such an early stage is not to be discounted. Plenty of companies live in fear of their early adopters, who often react negatively at any change. This leaves these companies paralyzed, unable to grow when they hit  saturation of their early adopter segment. Because the global market of users has been expanded by the unprecedented reach of connected smart phones, early adopter segments can now number in the tens of millions, confusing companies into thinking that their early adopter segment is actually the mass market.

Twitter, more than any other company, needs to stop listening to its earliest users and recognize that deep down, its core strength is not the 140 character limit per Tweet, nor is it the strict reverse chronological timeline, or many other things its earliest users treat as gospel.

It's not even the ability to follow people, though for its current power users that has proved a useful way to mine some of the most relevant content from the billions of Tweets on the service. If Twitter realizes this, they'll understand that their chief goal should not necessarily be to teach the next several hundred million users how to follow hundreds of people, the way that the early adopters did. To do so is to mistake the next wave of users as being identical in their information consumption preferences and habits as the first 300 million, or whatever the true active count is among that number (I'm going to guess it's in the range of 40 to 80 million truly active daily users, though it's hard to tell without seeing the data).

Twitter's chief strength is that it's an elegant public messaging protocol that allows anyone to write something quickly and easily, and for anyone in the world to see that writing. It's a public marketplace of information. That's an amazing network, and the reason people struggle to describe Twitter is that a platform like that can be used for so many things.

If Twitter realizes that, then they'll realize that making that information marketplace much more efficient is the most critical way to realize the full potential of what is a world-changing concept. How do you match content from people who publish on Twitter with the readers who'd enjoy that content?

A people follow model is one way, but a topic-based matching algorithm is another. Event-based channels are just a specific version of that. Search is one option, but why isn't there browse? I can think of a dozen other ways to turbocharge that marketplace off the top of my head, and the third party developer community, kicked out of the yard by Twitter so many times like stray dogs, could likely come up with dozens of others if they were allowed back in.

Twitter can leave the reverse chronological timeline in place for grumpy early adopters. It can be Twitter Classic. Most of those early adopters are largely happy with things the way they are, and if Twitter is scared to lose them, leave the current experience in place for them. I honestly don't think they'd abandon the service if Twitter raised the 140 character limit, or allowed for following of topics, or any number of other changes suggested here, because I think the power of the network is the network itself, but if the company has any such trepidations, it's not a big deal to leave Twitter Classic in place. The company has a huge engineering and product team, it's easy to park that experience in maintenance mode.

When social networks come into their own, when they realize their power is not in any one feature but in the network itself, they make changes like this that seem heretical. They aren't. Instead, these are fantastic developmental milestones, indicative of a network achieving self-awareness. A feature is trivial to copy. A network, on the other hand, is like a series of atoms that have bonded into a molecule. Not so easy to split.

It's a post for another day, but one of the defining features of our age is the rise of the network. Software may be eating the world, but I posit that networks are going to eat an outsized share because they capitalize disproportionately on the internet. Journalism, advertising, video, music, publishing, transportation, finance, retail, and more—networks are going to enter those spaces faster than those industries can turn themselves into networks. That some of our first generation online social networks have begun self-actualizing is just the beginning of that movement.

“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I'm flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol... as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.” Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins