royce wells

More Emergent Features on Twitter

Wednesday, May 5, 2021 · 5 min read

Twitter continues to evolve it’s product with emergent features, this time taking on direct payments to creators.

About five years ago I wrote an essay where I looked at the history of the Retweet as an example of emergent product design. The gist is that retweets started as a bolt-on workaround to the platform’s limitations and grew to an integral part of the user experience.

Retweets grew orginalically from a user base that needed an easy signifier for origination. Users tagged their retweets with “RT” and the handle of the original poster as a way of referencing, supporting, and disagreeing.

While it had its limitaitons, the user-created “Retweet” function was passed throughout Twitter’s network and became part of the overall system, an embeded and unintentional feature.

Various other methods were created to solve for this particular job to be done. The users wanted to be able to share other content that they found on the platform. The copy, paste and add a “RT” became a simple way of accomplishing this.

In essence, the retweet became an additional feature of Twitter, long before it was on a product manager’s roadmap for the platform.

Since then there has been some more serious attempts to chart the rise of the feature. Narendra Rocherolle, an early Twitter employee lays it out in some more detail in his piece The Origin of the Retweet and other Twitter Arcana. Another look comes from the fascinating paper “Less Mutable, More Mobile: The Role of Twitter Apps in the History of the Retweet Button," which lays out the longer history and attempts to situate the feature in the history of Twitter and the surrounding ecosystem.

There is some similar history you could do with Quote Tweets, or Threads, or plenty of other Twitter features. I’d argue they have a track record of adopting quirky user behavior as inspiration for key features of the product.

There has been a series of recent news around Twitter and a suite of features focused on the so-called “creator economy.” While I find the term a bit silly, the idea holds. Regular people can now go to the internet, create content, and monetize it with relative ease. If you have an audience, you can create a low-cost, high-margin digital product. Boom, a new member of the creator economy.

The tooling for this audience-to-product pipeline has significantly improved over the years. It has become easier for non-technical individuals to package and sell subscription or digital download products to their audiences. Patreon was one of the first startups that made a “household” name allowing individuals to sell subscription and one-off products to their audiences.

Newer products have innovated around the edges, but the model largely remains the same. Gumroad has a cheaper, simpler offering. OnlyFans, caters to specialized content. Substack, focuses on a specific delivery channel. All are set around the basic idea of taking your audience and selling to them. The platforms take their cut, the followers get a valuable product, and the creators have a money in their pockets.

However, the crucial part to this creator-economy scheme is still the audience. And the task for creators is still to find folks to consume and eventually buy your content. That task has largely been carried out by growing a presence on social platforms. The king of short form social platforms is Twitter. Up in till recently, this also meant moving your audience from social networks like Twitter to monetization channels like Paetreon, Gumroad or Substack.

Twitter has traditionally made money through selling advertising space, following the dominate business mode of free social media. This is set to change with their expedition in to new features focused around subscription and one-off payments to creators.

They’ve done this through an interesting mix of acquisitions and in-house product development. Each tackles a unique part of the main money-making channels for creators. Subscriptions for long-form content like newsletters come from the acquisition of Revue. Paid tweets are coming with the new Super Follow feature. Audio is covered by Twitter Spaces, with plans for tipping and paid Spaces. The most recent addition is Scroll focused around paywalls and providing substituting subscription revenue for ads on major publications.

The announcements have come in quick succession, prompting some commentary to the effect that Twitter’s product team has finally woken up. But production evolution has been typical of Twitter for a while now, this is just the first that we’ve seen it in a direct avenue for monetization.

I think the latest features focused on the creator economy are a further extension Twitter’s emergent product design. For a few years now, people have been doing work arounds in order to monetize their Twitter audiences. This has taken various forms, but all have pushed users off Twitter and to the platform with the actual paid content. In practice that has meant creators posting Gumroad links in their bios and running owned-media campaigns on their timelines. I’ve even seen paid access Twitter accounts that lock their account and manage followers based on who has subscribed through Patreon.

This experience is less than ideal and Twitter doesn’t capture any of this value, even though without Twitter there would be very little value there to begin with. Twitter-native monetization options is removes this unnecessary friction. This vertical integration lets Twitter own the entire experience, realizing benefits for creators and consumers.

In his 2009 post Project Retweet: Phase One, co-founder Biz Stone writes: - “‘Some of Twitterʼs best features are emergent—people inventing simple but creative ways to share, discover, and communicate.”

You can now add “sell” to the list. I think there is a good chance these new evolutions are as successful as the Retweet.