Twitter’s entire premise is based on publicness. “Join the conversation in the global town square!” the company likes to say.
But, over the past year, Twitter has come around to seeing the value of being more discreet.
The company plans to significantly update its direct-messaging product in the near future, according to multiple sources, bringing the long-buried feature to the forefront for the first time in years.
Part of the new reemphasis on direct messaging is already here. For weeks, Twitter has been internally testing a setting that allows users to send and receive direct messages from others without needing to mutually follow one another. And, earlier this week, the company began to roll it out to the public in a limited capacity.
But Twitter’s new vision for direct messages will go further. It has kicked around the idea of launching a standalone direct-messaging application separate from the Twitter app, according to three people familiar with the matter. It is unclear, however, what form the final revamp of direct messages will take.
A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment when asked about future messaging plans.
Twitter’s move comes as a defensive riposte to personal-messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Line and KakaoTalk, all of which have drastically increased in popularity over the past two years. KakaoTalk, in particular, was mentioned as a threat in Twitter’s S-1 IPO documentation, filed earlier this month. To cope with such an increase in attention, other social networks, like Facebook and Path, have also made significant updates to their messaging capabilities.
Twitter paid specific attention to Snapchat, the massively popular ephemeral-messaging service, during its rapid ascent to popular use. Twitter even ran one of its own surveys, according to sources familiar with the matter, finding that people are indeed using Snapchat to engage more with others. And one of Twitter’s updates to Android tablet apps earlier this month borrows heavily from Snapchat’s in-message illustration features.
Earlier in the year, Twitter also met with employees from MessageMe, another popular mobile-messaging application, according to sources.
Moving private messaging up the food chain hasn’t always been in the company’s plans. At one point in Twitter’s history, employees discussed possibly killing direct messaging off altogether, according to multiple sources, making Twitter a truly public service once and for all. It is said that Jack Dorsey was one of the biggest proponents of the “all-public” version of Twitter.
Instead, Twitter went in a considerably less drastic direction. Under the direction of Dorsey and then product VP Satya Patel, the company launched a complete redesign of its desktop and mobile products in December of 2011, plucking the direct-messaging menu from the home screen and burying it under a separate, less visible menu. Eventually, the idea was that the product could have possibly been phased out.
Besides dealing with a public that wants personal-messaging services, Twitter also must attempt to solve its serious growth problem, one that seems to have alienated the service from becoming truly mainstream. The company hopes that an upcoming redesign will put an end to its retention issues and ultimately boost Twitter’s overall user ranks.
It is likely that we will see both updates before the year’s end, perhaps in time for the company’s much-anticipated initial public offering next month.