#49: Does Twitter Really Need More Long-Form?
Twitter's proposed Articles feature is another bet on long-form being part of the platform's future. Is this the right bet to make?
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Does Twitter Really Need More Long-Form?
There’s a fun old quote from Mark Twain that pokes at the concept of brevity.
It goes something like this:
“I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”
Twitter is perhaps one of the more challenging paradoxes that prove this.
At first, it’s one of those tools where the character constraints lead to quick releases - thoughts that take mere minutes to shape and throw out into the world.
As you grow your following and, with it, a reliance and admiration for your every word, the pressure takes its toll.
Forming tweets when you get a following is like attempting to remove a splinter - each word a careful poke, a hard enough gesture to make a point but not too daring to awaken the bloodlust of your worst critics.
After a while, some people get good at it. We all turn from good-natured, happy tweeters to aspiring provocateurs until the day Twitter throws another wrench in it all and makes us question how long our powers are even good for.
Twitter is one of my favorite subjects to tackle here. Not only do I use it daily, but it’s a product with so many horizontal use cases that it’s hard to introduce anything new without at least a healthy balance of both excitement and skepticism.
Fleets came with skepticism, Super Follows came with skepticism, Revue came with skepticism, NFT profile pictures came with skepticism, and even DM management, a long-desired feature from users, came with skepticism. The newest Twitter main character is a feature that tentatively goes by Twitter Articles and was shared by Jane Wong in early February.
Twitter’s quest to make a portion of its users happy is challenging, but I thought this was an interesting question to explore. Like the piece about Super Follows last year, I wondered if this is something we are doomed to hate… or could be a masterstroke for Twitter.
In the same vein, here’s unpacking both: the bull and bear case for Twitter’s Articles.
First up .. Twitter Articles and why it’s a brilliant move.
Could Twitter Articles Be a Brilliant Move?
If anyone wondered whether putting a character limit on tweets would somehow make people keep their thoughts short, Twitter quickly recognized its futility.
In 2017, the platform launched a new feature to link tweets and support tweetstorms, something we now commonly know as threads.
People either feel indifferent about threads, imbibe them like morning oxygen, or make hating threads part of their identity on Twitter. It’s overall a strangely polarizing reaction to something that’s literally just words. But threads are a manifestation of what long-form could look like.
For some, the challenge of breaking down an idea into a few tiny bits is enticing. Breaks bring spark and dramatic sequence to an otherwise mundane story. For others, it’s simply a necessary burden, a choppy distribution technique that is hardly preferred to word vomiting on a Substack.
It’s hard to know where Twitter Articles come in given how little we know about the feature, but one could see a perfect marriage here: the user ease of writing articles with the distribution power of threads.
The best threads resonate for various reasons, but many of them are provocative stories, compelling anecdotes, or tutorials with organized delivery. So it’s hard to imagine that either of those formats would lose out in the long form. Plus, what would the thread haters hate on then? Articles? Like you literally hate on words at that point, right?
It does go back to one of Twitter’s significant challenges - keeping people on Twitter when some of the best content can be linked to an external source.
In the bull case for Super Follows for a piece last March, we discussed one of the biggest value propositions of Twitter’s interest graph: discovery:
There is a reason so many creators feature their Twitter profile URL as the main link on all other platforms, from Substack to Clubhouse to Discord - Twitter is the front page for creators, the place where they can market their content to their audience. Packy McCormick, author of newsletter Not Boring, has even gone on record to say Twitter is the #1 tool he has used to grow Not Boring.
There was a caveat to that: While Twitter is a good front page for creators, it misses out on a lot of attribution credit simply because some of a creator’s best content lives elsewhere. Super Follows was somewhat of a solution for this - if you pay someone x dollars, you can consume as much of their content as you want, and they get credit for it. But it was a good solution, mainly on the creator side. It was hard to incentivize consumers to buy something they had long been entitled to for free.
Do Twitter Articles change anything about that dynamic?
In an ideal world, it essentially extends the lifeline of creators on Twitter.
You can tease more writing within the app, develop longer thoughts, keep the variety of content up, and actually build on Twitter’s promise that it is a good home for creators.
Let’s say you’re skeptical about the creator argument - that creators writing newsletters on Substack and even Twitter’s own Revue, won’t care about articles.
There is still another value proposition that’s extremely powerful for Twitter: Accessibility.
The problem is that long-form statements embedded in images aren’t recognized as readable text. Also known as flattened copy, it’s a massive obstacle for assistive devices.
The further issue is that lots of flattened copy comes from largely important information - proclamations from the POTUS, for example.
This puzzle is where Twitter Articles could be a huge help.
Allowing articles native to Twitter and readable would atleast be a bonus for those who traditionally have trouble engaging with flattened copy. Moreover, the articles feature could change the conversation around accessibility and push more people to consider the impact of screenshot essays, infographics, and more on a population that can’t access them fully.
So there are certainly pros.
Twitter has long been a place where nuance often goes to die.
Haphazard thoughts tell incomplete stories, invite spur-of-the-moment judgments and create barrels of quote tweets mobs quicker than longer explanations can come.
Could longer-form on Twitter be the slow healing around a site built around quick-hitting microcontent?
Or could it, like many features before it, absolutely suck?
Could Twitter Articles Be a Bad Move?
Let’s just call out the elephant in the room first: cannibalization.
Twitter has invested in a newsletter service and built tools around driving people to build newsletters. The Revue move was seen precisely as a way for Twitter to jump into long-form.
I haven’t been able to find many stats on Revue compared to Substack use, and I suspect many people who have the Revue call-to-action are mostly just feeding it into an external API. So maybe Twitter is losing the bet on Revue, and this is another hail mary?
But it begs a bigger question: who is the audience for Twitter Articles?
Let’s assume that we have a few organizations already in the bag: The White House, NGOs, others who consistently post longer releases.
What about consumers?
My first guess was journalists who would want more than a tweet to share observations. But could you find a journalist who would abandon writing on their publication’s platform to somehow sacrifice that advertising revenue to share their longer-form ideas and interviews for free on Twitter? Possibly in emergencies? But now we’re basically just whittling down a larger use case into one that would be rare and largely already solved by Twitter’s current state.
What about people on Linkedin who are constantly posting long, monomythical tales about how they gave feedback in an interview one time? Maybe. But there’s a reason they’re more prevalent on Linkedin today - Twitter would hardly be as polite.
So perhaps you have a middle ground of a creator who just wants to get their work noticed and cross-posts that same work onto Substack and Medium and a website. Now, all of a sudden, those platforms are pissed off. Customers are going insane. Who wins here?
When my friend Brianne asked about this in a #PopChat about a month ago, the response was not great. The two main themes were around responsibilities increasing for SMMs on Twitter to encompass larger content teams and the idea that the “Twitter Articles” would somehow shift the culture of Twitter and simply fuel those who are already tormenting the site with nonsense.
Maybe there’s a shortcut?
Just copying and pasting?
We can find out in a few months
While it’s hard to tell without knowing more about the feature or more about Twitter’s goals, it’s easy to wonder where Twitter is going next directionally.
If the site's goal is to get ideas in front of more people, there are still more questions: will the algorithm favor articles? Will the profile favor articles? Like Instagram and Reels, a new type of content isn’t just a feature to flex - it could fundamentally change how someone interacts with the site.
That’s the most considerable risk to all of this. Is any feature deep enough to extend someone’s experience but still small enough not to alter the status quo?
It’s a hard lesson Twitter will have to continue to learn.
Should Twitter Just Make An Edit Button?
Now that Twitter is feature-obsessed enough to make bets on new things, it’s time to discuss something people bark about every time there’s a new release: the edit button.
The conversation goes something like this:
I make too many typos, all I want is to change it once without having to delete the tweet.
But what if your tweet goes viral, and you change it to “I always enjoy watching baby elephants get trampled,” Now it looks like I’m endorsing that.
Oh my god, that’s so dramatic.
Why don’t you just use Twitter Blue like a normal fucking person!
People ask me to write about my thoughts in this newsletter about this and I hate it. I hate edit-button discourse. It feels like this conversation usually just entails two people with confirmation bias going back and forth, and there’s no changing anyone’s minds, but I’ll give my two cents:
Let people fix typos. Stop people from editing after a certain level of engagement. Alert people when tweets they’ve retweeted have been edited. If someone keeps editing tweets, stop them from using the feature. Put an edited label like Facebook or Slack does. Stop pretending the undo button is the same thing.
This feels like an easy enough product problem to solve, and I don’t get it, and I’m mad they haven’t even thought about testing it, and this is the last time I’ll ever be writing about it. FIN.
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Until next time,
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