Stephen Foley: Tweet this: unsatisfied customers are not a good basis for expansion

Click to follow
The Independent Online

US Outlook: I am a sporadic tweeter but a keen consumer of tweets. As anyone using Twitter knows, it is a great way of listening in to the thoughts of smart people (or dumb celebrities, if that's your bag), and of keeping up with the latest news.

Yet my relationship with Twitter, like a lot of people's, is love-hate, which is why I haven't decided if it is on a Facebook trajectory, towards world domination, or a MySpace trajectory, towards – oh dear.

News arrives this week that Twitter is close to acquiring TweetDeck, which developed the most popular app for sifting and sorting all those tweets, for $40m or more. Until recently, the firm has appeared happy to let developers build businesses using Twitter content as their raw material. Now it seems intent on controlling any and all revenue there is to be made.

This is good business sense and not unfair. Congratulations to TweetDeck, and hard cheese for the unchosen few who built similar businesses on Twitter's content, only to find Twitter going into competition with them. Except that Twitter should get its own house in order before it starts bringing TweetDeck and other apps in-house.

Many of the external developers who flocked to build Twitter-related services have given up for fear of being put out of business on a whim by Twitter itself. Their absence puts greater onus on Twitter to provide a quality experience for users and a reliable platform for advertisers and any other businesses that want to pay for access. On this score, and to the increasing impatience of many, Twitter's own website and apps fall short.

Some frustrations are just bugs in the system and it is mystifying why they haven't been identified and fixed. Others are more fundamental irritations. The window for dealing with them, before users start drifting away in disillusion, seems to me to be narrowing fast.

So, Twitter, here are 10 things I hate about you:

*Tweets from people I am following sometimes do not show up in my feed.

* is repeatedly "unable to load earlier tweets".

*Refreshing a page containing the results of a search query fails to bring in the latest tweets.

*The number of followers it says I have is sometimes different from browser to browser.

*Having to put "http://" at the start of links is a waste of precious characters.

*The "top tweets" that appear in search results are rarely the ones I am looking for.

*It is impossible to easily follow interesting conversations that occur when two Twitter users are replying to each other.

*Searching for a topical subject throws up tweet after tweet linking to the same news stories.

*Robots are running rampant, automatically retweeting or messaging people based on key phrases and clogging the system with spam.

*The official Twitter app for my iPhone stopped working a month ago and inexplicably gives me nothing but the message: "Private account". The app was created by outside developers and acquired by Twitter last year. I swear it worked when they bought it.

Twitter was notorious for service outages its early days, and in that respect has improved immeasurably, but it is still far too buggy, clunky and unsatisfying.

Its failure to match up against the development prowess of lesser-funded internet businesses is no doubt partly the result of management turmoil at the company. The return of the founder, Jack Dorsey, might have been cause for optimism, were he not going to split his time between Twitter and his more recent start-up, Square.

Yes, I know I am getting Twitter free, but that is no longer an excuse. The company's exponentially growing user numbers have helped it attract more than $300m of investment at ever-increasing valuations, and I just want to ask those investors: what is a customer worth if they are an unsatisfied customer? I for one refuse to take Twitter's purported valuation of $7.7bn seriously until the product starts to feel less like a beta test from a hand-to-mouth start-up.

So far the company has survived in spite of itself, with nourishment from the ecosystem around it. Its bid for TweetDeck demonstrates that it wants to control more of the user experience for itself – but is it competent?