TECH
01/07/2012 09:41 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2012

Twitter's Blank Slate Problem

I recently helped a friend sign up for Twitter, coaching him on the site's features and how to populate his feed. He is a voracious reader, never leaves home without an Apple device and has an insatiable appetite for news and commentary. In short, he had all the makings of an up-and-coming Twitter addict -- or so I thought.

He didn't stick with Twitter, and after scrutinizing his timeline of incoming tweets, I can understand why.

It looked nothing like my own Twitter feed, which offers a satisfying mix of commentary, personal updates, photos, news and quality recommendations from an assortment of accounts I've spent years curating and tweak almost daily.

His Twitter timeline was dominated by generic blathering from various news accounts and institutions.

My friend could have groomed his assortment of accounts, but why would he have? Like many others, he was open to trying Twitter, but not especially determined to stay on it, and his initial experience failed to deliver information he couldn't have found elsewhere in a more efficient way. The time he'd invested in it hadn't sold him on the service, and he wasn't keen on investing more.

One of Twitter's greatest strengths is its ability to be anything for anyone. For some users, it's a way of communicating within small groups of friends. For others, it's a news site or a source of celebrity gossip or a way to participate in a political movement. What Twitter amounts to -- tool, tabloid, messaging service or news feed -- depends entirely on whom you follow.

Yet the site's fill-in-the-blank nature also poses problems for some. Twitter greets newcomers with a blank slate that they're forced to fill out on their own. Being a Twitter newbie is like arriving for dinner at a restaurant that's received rave reviews -- only instead of being offered a menu, diners must make a dish themselves and select all the ingredients, down to the spices and herbs. The experience might be a pleasant one, but it takes work.

This initial emptiness, and the effort required to address it, stands between Twitter and the mainstream success it needs to make money. The six-year-old, San Francisco-based company has swallowed more than $800 million in funding and has been valued at $8.4 billion, more than Delta Air Lines or the New York Times. Yet the company is still struggling to prove it has a business model that fits.

Its current approach, to sell advertising on its site, will be sustainable only if Twitter can continue to expand its reach and grow far beyond the geek elite. Twitter has more than 100 million active accounts worldwide -- an impressive number but one that pales in comparison to Facebook's over 800 million users.

As part of its efforts to attract more diverse users, Twitter has revamped its site to make its hashtag-laden, symbol-spotted lingo more intuitive. Next, it must help users find people to follow.

Twitter knows full well it will lose users unless it can deliver a chatty, engaging timeline, without requiring Twitterers to expend too many clicks.

"For people to immediately have a compelling, valuable experience on Twitter, one of the most important things we can do is help them build a timeline and find interesting, relevant accounts to follow when they first sign up," Twitter spokeswoman Carolyn Penner told The Huffington Post in an email.

For Twitter users to see the thriving "information network" the site claims to provide, they must do the legwork. They must research people to follow, spend time curating their feed, watch their timelines evolve and experiment with new accounts.

But no doubt many people lack the patience to do so. Having to pick through possible accounts can be a chore, and an unlikely one to be taken on by someone not even convinced he wants to stay with the service.

Twitter has already made numerous efforts to help users populate their feeds. Individuals can sync their email accounts to find friends on Twitter, and the service offers customized suggestions about "who to follow." Twitter’s redesigned registration process, introduced last fall, holds users' hands and nudges them to add accounts to their feed. After claiming a Twitter handle, new users are now shown a curated list of other users, with the recommendation to start off by picking five to follow.

This follower-focused signup process is a start but not necessarily effective. I recently created a new Twitter account to give the revamped registration process a go. After dutifully following Twitter’s instructions, I was delivered my first page of tweets, all from one hyperactive tweeter. This would have been a total turnoff to a Twitter newbie.

Pressure is mounting. People are losing patience with social media sites and, as the number of social networking sites grows, individuals will be less tolerant of services not delivering instant gratification, warned Shama Kabani, author of "The Zen of Social Media Marketing."

"One of the issues Twitter has to face in 2012 and beyond is social networking fatigue," Kabani said. "Because there are so many sites, if someone struggles to get into Twitter, their threshold for giving it a shot will be much smaller now than it might have been. Before, they might have given it a few months. Now, if you’re not offering what people want, they can go next door."

What has attracted you to -- or turned you off from -- from Twitter? Weigh in below.

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