Not a week goes by without Twitter's future being debated across tech blogs and, increasingly, the mainstream media. Their problem is simple enough - how do they get beyond their current ceiling of 300m users, make their investors happy & stop falling behind Facebook, Instagram and increasingly Snapchat.
Twitter and their returning CEO Jack Dorsey are responding, sort of. Their strategy so far seems to be to make Twitter incrementally more like Facebook. For a while now we've had the "while you were away" tweets, presented out of normal chronological order (and more like a Facebook newsfeed than a typical Twitter stream) and now we have the replacement of the "Favorite" star with a much more Facebook like "Heart".
So Twitter's strategy for catching up with Facebook is to be more like Facebook. Does that really make sense? Surely if people want Facebook they'll use Facebook? Twitter's success lies in being something different.
I'd venture that none of the tweaks they've tried so far gets to the crux of Twitter's problem; there is simply too much content noise on the average Twitter stream, and it means the quality of the average user experience is low.
Let me explain. For a long time now Facebook has, by default, not presented updates in chronological order. Instead they have invested heavily in an algorithm which presents to you a selection of posts and updates that you're most likely to me interested in.
This works really, really well. Every time you login to Facebook, from the thousands of posts they could show you from the hundreds of "friends" you haven't seen for years and the brands you "liked" at some point in the past but now barely recognise, they select about twenty bits of content from people you regularly interact with or, sometimes, because that piece of content is in itself getting a high level of engagement. The end result is a really awesome filter which, with almost no user input, turns the content noise down to almost zero.
So Why can't Twitter just do that? Well, they could, of course. But that would be dumb. Firstly it would ruin Twitter as a place to discuss real time events, whether that American Idol or the death of Bin Laden, as the "breaking news" tweets wouldn't automatically be the first ones you see. Secondly it would break Twitter's conversation mechanism, which although clunky, has become one of its primary uses.
So if they can't do a Facebook and automate it, how does Twitter reduce the content noise?
Simple: limit the number of people you can follow.
What, I hear you cry, impose an arbitrary and inconvenient restriction on it's users? Why would Twitter do that?
Well, they already do. The 140 character limit might have made sense when they saw SMS as the primary method for posting updates, but now it's nothing more than an arbitrary limit that differentiates Twitter from everything else. Want a random mix of photos, videos, updates and links that people have churned out over the last 24 hours in no particular order? Go to Facebook. Want to know what people are saying right now about what is happening right know, and want those comments to be super succinct? Go to Twitter.
The genius of the character limit is it turns your words into a valuable currency. On the rest of the web words as limitless and blogger brain vomit is commonplace (irony noted, dear reader). On Twitter, you have to think carefully about what you say, each keystroke counts. You have to be sharp, because you can't be anything else.
By limiting the user they enhance the user experience.
So imagine what Twitter would look like if, for example, you could only follow 200 people. Firstly, the noise levels drops through the floor. Instead of my last 100 tweets covering about five minutes, they cover a couple of hours. I'm seeing content from fewer people, but I'm seeing much more of what those people have to say, so I'm missing much less than I do now.
Also, if I'm at my limit and I want to follow someone new, I have to choose to drop someone I already follow. Currently it's much easier to gain a follower than lose one, unless you say someone offensive or are really, really boring, people don't tend to ever unfollow anyone. That's why we have such follower-bloat, with users in many cases following thousands of people, most of whom only said anything interesting once. By forcing users to constantly curate who they follow, Twitter would reward people who generated really great content. They'd make the cut when users were forced to trim their following list. Correspondingly, people who produce crap, or just regurgitate content from others, would quickly get dropped. Twitter could easily suggest which people a user should stop following based on how much interaction they have had with that person's content. They could even automate it if the user wished.
Overall, with a strict following limit, you'd end up with a much higher quality, less noisy experience for everyone.
Will Twitter do it? Almost certainly not. Their current direction of travel is in the exact opposite to this idea, in fact it looks like they're about to ditch the 140 character limit, the only thing that makes them distinctive.
I struggle to remember the last time Twitter made a good decision about their product, which is a shame, because in so many ways it's become essential. However of they don't get the next few big calls right, they could be dead.
NB: Of course the following limit idea has been tried, by Path, but that was really different. Path was designed for close friends and family to share the really personal stuff, which is the diametric opposit of Twitter.