I’ve recently linked to Adrian Short’s commentary about Twitter’s subtle hints at forthcoming changes regarding the ‘Twitter experience’ and, most importantly, Twitter’s relationship with third-party developers and services that integrate Twitter. My reaction to this post in the Twitter development blog was very much like Adrian Short’s. However, Dan Frommer too has a point. His piece, Understanding Twitter is quite interesting and thought-provoking, and you should read it in its entirety.
The worry, as usual, seems to be that Twitter — a thing we love deeply — is going to destroy itself as it tries to become more of a business. Or at least ruin the Twitter that we grew up with or the Twitter that could have been. Anyway, I get it. No one likes it when The Man takes things away, even if it’s as bizarre as wanting to use LinkedIn to read Twitter. But it’s also important to understand Twitter’s situation.
The biggest factor driving Twitter today is that it wants to remain an independent company. There were previous opportunities to become part of Google or Facebook or whatever, but now Twitter wants to remain its own property. To become a strong, independent company, Twitter must build a large, profitable business, sooner than later — or the dream is over. It’s possible, but it will require change, which makes people uncomfortable.
Twitter has many options, but ads seem to fit the best. It could have tried to become a utility, like AT&T, and charge for all the traffic (tweets) that go over its pipes. It could have tried to become a subscription service, like Netflix, and charge a monthly or annual fee to use Twitter. Or any freemium mashup. But charging money could slow things down, and as a network, Twitter’s utility and value grow exponentially as more people use it. (Also: People are cheap.)
I specifically cited this bit because I want to insert my observations right at this point. I’m a strong supporter of the ‘premium account’ model, especially the way sites like LiveJournal and Flickr have implemented it. Both these places have created premium/pro accounts in a completely optional way. Of course, having a premium LiveJournal or pro Flickr account has its advantages, but at the same time, people who choose the free account option don’t receive (too much) crippled experiences in return and can still enjoy the service. Typically, if you have a basic LJ or Flickr account, you’re a casual user who doesn’t take full advantage of their services and therefore you don’t think it’s worth upgrading to a paid account. While users who want to make the most of their LJ or Flickr experience and usage, people who tend to use these services more frequently and heavily, will generally choose to upgrade to a paid account.
I’ve been thinking that Twitter could implement premium accounts in exactly the same way. Given the huge user base, Twitter could charge as low as $10–15 a year. Benefits of a premium account could include removing ads and letting people use their third-party client of choice, while free accounts get to use only the Twitter web interface and the official Twitter clients, and they’ll have all those promoted tweets and ads Twitter inserts in the timeline. This is just off the top of my head, and the idea can obviously be better refined, finding a balance that can be advantageous to both types of users, the casual Twitter user for whom the Free option is more than enough, and the Twitter addict who wants the most hassle-free Twitter experience.
Like many other people, I have invested a lot in Twitter since 2008, and it has become an essential social tool (I hate using these buzzphrases, bear with me). I’ve been gladly paying for a pro Flickr account since 2006, $24.95 per year, and I don’t think it’s a steep price considering what Flickr has given me in return. If Twitter introduced paid accounts at, say, $12.95 per year, I would pay for it as promptly and gladly. It’s all in what you decide to offer in your premium option (or what you decide to take away in your free option). Dan Frommer is right, people are cheap, but I think that there’s a sufficient number of people who would pay for a Twitter premium account if it were worthwhile enough.