15 years in, Twitter is ready to be more than just tweets

Twitter is building features to help its most influential users make money, and it could completely change the platform.

For 15 years, Twitter has looked pretty much the same. Now, the company is poised to move beyond the tweet with a series of changes that could dramatically alter how people interact on its platform.

Over the last year the company has significantly expanded the way its users can communicate. It introduced ephemeral content with “fleets,” a Stories-like feature that disappears after 24 hours. It added voice tweets, and started experimenting with Spaces, a Clubhouse-style feature for real-time audio chats.

There are even bigger changes on the way: Twitter recently acquired newsletter company Revue, signaling a push beyond character limits and into longform content. It also recently previewed new features for groups and, crucially, a bevy of new tools for creators who want to make money off the platform. Central to this is “super follow,” a paid feature that will allow users to pay a subscription fee in exchange for exclusive content or preferential access to a creator.

What’s just as surprising is how quickly Twitter has launched these new ideas. For years, the company introduced features so infrequently that expanding its character limit and changing stars to hearts were considered monumental changes.

“A few years ago it may have taken six months to a year to get a single feature or new product to our customers,” CEO Jack Dorsey said at a recent event. Now, a decade and a half in, Twitter is eager to change the perception that it’s slow to innovate.

What’s happening

“We're definitely moving faster now than I think we have ever in the past,” says Ilya Brown, Twitter’s VP of Product who has been at Twitter since 2016. “We're just much more comfortable in our skin in terms of experimenting in public.”

It’s not just that Twitter has spent much of its history moving slowly. It’s that for years the company struggled to articulate what its service was and why people should care about it. Early on, Twitter was often described as a “micro-blogging” service, a term that was essentially meaningless to anyone outside of Silicon Valley.

Even in its earliest days, Twitter executives struggled to explain the service to outsiders. “What is Twitter? It’s actually a very hard question to answer because it’s so many different things to so many different people,” Jack Dorsey says in a plodding 13-minute presentation that’s more of a list of tweets than an explanation of the service he created.

This identity crisis continued for years. The company spent millions on splashy marketing campaigns that were panned for being “incomprehensible.” And while many may have been happy for Twitter to keep its insider-ey mystique, it wasn’t a strategy that was particularly helpful for attracting new users.

That started to change in 2016, when Twitter rolled out yet another ad campaign. But this one had a much simpler message: Twitter is what’s happening.

“I think that was the first time where we really articulated with Twitter was about: Twitter is about what's happening around you, it's what's happening in the world,” says Brown. “Twitter itself is what's happening. Being able to articulate that for the first time was a bit of a catalyst that started the movement to get to where we are today.”

It wasn’t just a new marketing message that changed Twitter. Brown and other executives have also credited the years of behind-the-scenes work to improve Twitter’s underlying technology, which slowed down growth. “We’ve been working ourselves out of a significant deficit for years now,” Dorsey said during his recent analyst day presentation. “A lot of this was technical, and some of it was incorrect prioritization … In most cases, we’ve had to take the hard path of prioritizing fewer initiatives and rebuilding from scratch, which is never easy.”

There were also external forces at play: A year ago, Twitter was facing serious questions about its ability to weather the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, which cratered the events industry. And an activist investor firm tried to oust Dorsey from the company, in part, over the company’s lack of innovation.

“I feel like there's just generally been this vibe around Twitter, that the company has failed to innovate over the last several years,” says Alex Lieberman, CEO and founder of business newsletter Morning Brew. But he says the company’s recent moves into audio, as well as the new monetization features it previewed, have shown him a new side to the company.

“It just felt like this onslaught of potential innovation that was coming about that we're almost like, ‘is this the Twitter that we know,’ because we hadn't seen that level of innovation from the company in... ever.”

Embracing Creators

Much of the current excitement is driven by Twitter’s move to create tools that will allow users to make money directly from Twitter. Though the company has previously allowed publishers to generate revenue from video ads, the platform lacked the kinds of tools available to influencers on platforms like YouTube or Instagram.

That’s changing, with Twitter building multiple monetization features directly into its platform. “Today, the challenge is that while many of those creators are advertising on Twitter — meaning they're building a following on Twitter and trying to drive people to that content — they basically have to drive them off-platform,” Brown says. While we don’t yet have the full picture of how the features will work, the goal, according to Brown, is to keep the most creative and influential users on the platform and engaged with their followers.

Brown described three scenarios for how Twitter users could potentially make money: newsletters, exclusive content and tipping.

Subscriptions and newsletters: When Twitter announced in January that it was acquiring newsletter company Revue, it said it wanted to make it easier for authors to connect with their readers. Soon after, Twitter added a shortcut to the service.

But there are plans to integrate newsletters more deeply. Rather than using Twitter to “drum up traffic,” for a newsletter, Brown says, the company could make subscription content available directly on its platform.

Twitter is integrating newsletters into its service with Revue.

“What if you could just consume that content on Twitter, [and] not have to sign up for extra subscriptions from the New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal or things like that? Those are some of the types of use cases that we think about, because at the end of the day for our users, we want to reduce the friction. If we're going to send them off-platform, we're doing it intentionally, but we're not sending them off-platform in cases where we maybe could just keep them on-platform, and we're not popping up paywalls for them unless there's a good reason.”

Exclusive content: This is where the “super follow” comes in. But Brown says it’s more nuanced than just “paying for tweets.” Rather, followers who pay to be a super follower will be able to get access to content from that creator. “Maybe there's exclusive content that people might want to either give early access to or exclusive access to,” Brown says. “Imagine if you are a photographer, or a journalist or something like that, and you want to be able to put out content on Twitter, and get paid for it.”

Twitter's super follows feature.

Creators could provide other perks to super followers. That could be subscriber-only tweets, audio Spaces or direct messages. “We're really thinking of this as a layer of fabric that can thread together all of the capabilities that exist on Twitter today and new capabilities that we might add in the future,” Twitter’s Product Lead Kayvon Beykpour explained during his analyst day presentation.

Tipping: Twitter hasn’t said as much about exactly how tipping may work, though the company has indicated that it plans to “explore” the feature. (There are already signs that the company may be working on integrating payments apps like Venmo, or Cash App or Zelle into its product.)

But Brown noted that built-in tipping would be in line with how Twitter is already being used by some users. For example, it’s common to see someone follow up a tweet with a viral meme or joke by dropping a link to their Cash App or Venmo. In the future, those apps could potentially be integrated directly into Twitter’s product to make it more seamless.

“If a user were to have something go viral, and people really love it, could you just like, give them kudos in some form of monetary tip or something like that?” Brown says. “And it's not because you're required to do it, in order to see the content, it's more just kind of saying ‘thank you for the content’ after the fact.”

More than tweets

Put all that together, and it’s clear that Twitter wants to be more of a destination for influencers and content creators. Not just a repository of what’s happening around the internet, but the platform where more of those conversations are actually taking place.

Take Clubhouse, the latest social media darling. Currently, it’s common for people to publicize their upcoming Clubhouse chats on Twitter. And people often live-tweet what’s happening in popular Clubhouse rooms. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Twitter would like for its own Spaces feature to generate the same amount of buzz. (And, it may be well positioned to do so. Twitter has a massive head start over Clubhouse when it comes to the number of famous and high-profile users on its platform.)

Twitter's Spaces feature for audio chats.

What’s less clear is how many Twitter users will actually want to take advantage of these features. Nick Reisch, head of talent at Viral Nation, an agency that represents popular creators, says he’s not sure Twitter’s latest offerings will move the needle much for social media stars who are already established on other platforms like YouTube or Instagram.

“I think it may be a little bit of a harder sell to some people in the entertainment world,” Reisch said. “I could definitely see people that come from the knowledge, information and news world finding a big value in something like this.” He added that another major factor will be “the splits” that Twitter offers — the company’s cut from revenue generated by these features.

There’s also the fact that Twitter has a somewhat messy history when it comes to courting creators. The company bought Vine, one of the earliest pioneers of short-form social video, in 2012. But Twitter never seemed to quite know what to do with it. Vine closed in 2016 without ever delivering the revenue sharing agreements its biggest stars had long asked for.

Twitter isn't the only platform vying for talent.

“Vine leaves a bad taste in people's mouth,” says Lieberman, of Morning Brew. But things feel different now, he says. “I don't think there's any way to say that this isn’t an investment in creators. I think it's gonna behoove Twitter to make it very clear that this isn't a financial investment, that this is just part of their product strategy moving forward. So people don't have the concern that they're going to pull the plug in two years.”

Many of Vine’s biggest stars now have massive followings on YouTube and Twitch. Facebook, primarily through Instagram, is increasingly offering more and more tools to influencers, including new shopping features that let them sell products directly to fans. TikTok, which readily embraced Vine’s biggest stars, recently established a fund for its top users. And even Snapchat, which has mostly discouraged “influencer culture,” is paying users millions of dollars for viral content. The fact that Twitter is now working on its own monetization features could be less a sudden change of heart than a necessity: It’s not the only platform vying for talent.

“I think they look out across the [social media] landscape and see how important it is to have faces of their platform to go along with the excellent work that happens,” says Reisch. “And the way that you attract more faces and encourage people to think about it in a creative way is by making sure that they can make money.”

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