Today, Twitter released new apps for iPhones, iPads, and Android. They’re all-around better, with super fluid tweets that expand with a single tap, no doubt just in time to debut alongside Apple’s iOS 6 release tomorrow.
The new apps also take a turn for the visual. The Twitter profile is now eerily similar to Facebook’s Timeline, as you can post your standard Twitter picture along with a customized splash background. Then, if you scroll down the page, you’ll be met with a thumbnail catalog of your images called the Photo Stream. Swipe through the shots at will, tap on any image, and it fills the screen end-to-end.
On one hand, these updates show just how much Twitter has neglected the profile. Much like the tweet itself, profiles were always meant to be terse overviews of acquaintances, not deep, exploratory trips into someone’s life history. On the other, the changes mark a challenge to Twitter’s core value. Its compulsive lifecasting, its emphasis on the immediate rather than the catalogued, is somewhat at odds with this idea of a deeper, more intimate profile sitting on top a treasure trove of photographic memories.
Yet what is Twitter to do? The web is growing more visual. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Twitter’s 140 characters of text have started feeling hugely inadequate in a world filled with Pinterest links, Instagram photos, and Facebook timelines. Products like Flipboard exist solely to make Twitter a more visual narrative than a giant, caffeine-fed listicle of jokes and news—and that’s a bit absurd, if you think about it. Would a third party build a whole business around standing outside McDonald’s drive-thrus to make ordering Big Macs more satisfying? Why should anyone have to fix a product as popular as Twitter?
This update raises a question: What is Twitter’s core product? Is it 140 characters? Is it easily shared ideas? Is it a mega-popular API that others can exploit to make beautiful? Most people might choose "easily shared ideas," but when those ideas begin to resemble the way Facebook shares its ideas or Instagram shares its ideas, you realize that the obvious answer isn’t actually the right one. Any online social service isn’t just about the information, it’s about shaping how and when people share their information. It’s social programming as much as it is networking.
There is likely another motivation for a more visual Twitter than user friendliness, of course, and that’s a possibility for richer advertising. Sponsored tweets—sold sentences and hashtags—can only be so enticing for Fortune 500 companies used to splashing their logos across 30-foot billboards nationwide. Emphasizing pictures allows Twitter to emphasize pictures of products. And as Wall Street has put so much pressure on Facebook to start making money, the privately traded Twitter must feel at least a bit of that market pressure looming.
No doubt, today’s Twitter updates were relatively small, and just how far the company goes with the visual web trend is yet to be seen. We’re forecasting the weather for a month based upon a cloud in the sky. But it’s notable that Twitter isn’t focusing on a new way to explore trends or hashtags, to discover friends, or spot locally relevant news. Don’t be surprised if this is just the first of many big visual updates for Twitter. And furthermore, don’t be surprised if Facebook and Twitter start feeling a lot more the same than different because of that trend.