Here is Twitter's biggest problem

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Twitter is awesome but it's broken, says Stephen Bradley. Here's the biggest problem it needs to fix.

Twitter 's future is a subject of hot debate at the moment. Wall Street is disenchanted and, as a public entity, the company is going through a painful adolescence. It has its supporters, and it has its harsh critics. One who is both, Chris Sacca, a very early Twitter investor and advisor (who self-admittedly "bleeds aqua"), recently published an 8,500 word dissertation entitled "What Twitter Can Be," where he outlines a detailed proscription for the company's most immediate ills.

Most concerning for Twitter is the stalled growth in new users, and even more so, the nearly one billion users who have joined and never come back. Sacca notes that, for most people, Twitter is too hard to use, Tweeting is scary, and Twitter feels lonely.

I think Twitter's woes can be summed up in one word: community... or, more specifically, the lack thereof.

Counter-intuitive, isn't it? One could argue reasonably that Twitter is the largest, most dynamic, most connected community on the planet. But is it really? I don't personally experience a strong sense of community when I'm on Twitter. I feel more a part of something when engaged, for example, in the comments section of a favorite blog. I know this is also true for many others who do not measure their followers in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

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So, why is it that, with its hundreds of millions of monthly active users, all connected by the same network where anyone can talk to anyone, Twitter struggles to generate any real sense of community?

First, Twitter is fundamentally unidirectional. Everything flows downhill, passing from user to followers, in a cascade of information much more resembling a bullhorn than a conversation. What flows uphill from followers to "followees" is considerably less visible. Even Twitter's language reinforces this. We are "followers." Following by its very nature creates hierarchy, not community. Communities are built from people who have some common interest - people who might live in the same town, work in the same industry, or share an interest.

Twitter is fundamentally people-centric, and this does not facilitate the development of communities. For the truly dedicated, we try to find community through the use of hashtags and awkward search mechanisms that are not well designed to help us follow our interests efficiently. Twitter forces us to follow people to get to the topics we're really interested in, when instead we'd much rather follow topics to find the people we're interested in.

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Another problem is the fundamental nature of the timeline, which remains Twitter's dominant discovery and navigation mechanism. Timelines are incredibly inefficient discovery vehicles. As any kind of "tour guide" for finding the content we are really interested in, they are downright miserable. They are filled with noise, and the Tweets that come across them are fleeting, so, we spend most of our time with content we don't care about, and stand a good chance of missing much of the content we do. It's true that real-time notifications of relevant news can be useful to any community; however, the vast majority of what communities are interested in does NOT necessarily happen within the last hour. Even if it did, the pressure would be far too great to keep pace with the ever-flowing stream just to be able to participate.

Communities tend to be filled with discussion of their common interest. They want to share opinions and views; they want to learn more, get under the covers and into the details. This cannot happen through a timeline. While Twitter offers other mechanisms, like collections, these mechanisms are awkward, buried and far from central to the core Twitter experience.

Thinking back to the one billion lost Twitter users, it's easy to see how Sacca is right. For new or casual users, Twitter is difficult, intimidating and lonely. If, upon their arrival, those users had been immediately connected with other users who shared one or more of their interests, things would have been markedly different. When we come into community with others, we tend to stand on the sidelines for a while and just watch. Once we've gotten comfortable with the vibe of the community, then we might send or reply to a tweet to see what happens. If we get any feedback from other members, then we're encouraged to participate more. But if we get dead air, we are discouraged and disconnected. Even more so if we can't find the community in the first place.

If it hopes to return itself to strong new user growth, and re-attract those one billion lost users, Twitter needs to create much more of a community vibe. First, Twitter should organize itself around topics. This does not have to replace the people-following model, it just provides a different lens. Twitter has started to do this with its new logged-out home screen, but it's far too light and the topics are too broad. Twitter can't be the chooser of the topics - Twitter users must be. A better approach conceptually is the recently launched Twitter-curator, but so far this is only for very advanced users (specifically media companies).

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Second, Twitter needs to enable a community to draw a circle around itself. A community needs to be able to define and identify itself; it needs its own "space." Its members need to be able to share and discuss issues among themselves as a community, as peers rather than as an oligarchy. Members need to decide what is important to be shared and discussed, not Twitter.

Lastly, Twitter needs to introduce a much better model for curation. Not just Twitter's own algorithmic curation, but also curation by community members. Curation is a form of engagement that can have tremendous value for a community. Curation can be a simple up/down voting to rate Tweets and other content, or it can be something more involved, like creating a story from an assembly of tweets using a tool like Storify. Again, Twitter's current "collections" provide some of this ability, but without the other community-enabling elements it does not have nearly the value or impact it should.

There are good models for the kind of community facilitation that could make a big impact on Twitter. One of the best is Reddit. While Reddit may intimidate many novice users for its own reasons, it has the community thing nailed. With Reddit, communities self-identify and self-organize around subreddits. Communities have moderators, but they are chosen by the community and more importantly it is the community members not the moderators that make the contributions, curate and decide what gets visibility. A new user has little problem quickly surfacing one or more subreddits that interest them, where they can stand on the sidelines to watch for a while. In fact, a new user's entry point to Reddit is quite often a subreddit. If Twitter's entry point for new users were a subreddit-like community of other users in active dialog about some common interest, many more of those users would likely stick around.

As Mr. Sacca aptly puts it, "Twitter can afford to build the wrong things. However, Twitter cannot afford to build the right things too slowly." One of those things Twitter cannot afford to get wrong is community.

Commentary by Stephen Bradley, founder and CEO of AuthorBee,a social media aggregation platform. He has been involved in digital media since he ran research at Gartner and was later involved in the early growth of Pandora and Skillsoft. Follow him on Twitter @AuthorBee.