If you’ve been on Twitter for years, like many people in the tech and business world, it’s easy to forget what it was like signing up and using it for the first time.
The truth is that learning to use Twitter was really hard back then, and many new users abandoned the service. In 2009, its retention rate was worse than MySpace, threatening its ability to grow to critical mass. Too many new users were simply too confused to stick around and learn how to read and write 140-character posts.
It got over that. Twitter now has more than 200 million active monthly users. And a key reason why is its slick process for onboarding users.
One big reason why people abandoned the service was that they couldn’t figure out who to follow on Twitter. So in 2009, the information network started with a more or less hand-picked “suggested user list“—the same for everyone, heavily weighted toward Silicon Valley figures and Hollywood celebrities. The following year, it started tracking patterns in who followed whom, and used that to target suggestions.
But in 2012, Twitter took a big step that’s still not well understood. Publishers have placed Twitter buttons on millions of websites, making it easy to share pages on Twitter.
Even if you don’t tweet on a page—in fact, even if you don’t have a Twitter account—those buttons allow Twitter to track which websites you visit, if you haven’t or the publisher hasn’t opted out.
The website-visit data is deleted after 10 days, and Twitter makes it easy to opt out. (It’s not collected from European visitors, because of local laws).
But this is a primary way Twitter has improved the way it signs new users up.
Here's an explainer of how Twitter tracks some of the websites we visit. Honestly, this stuff doesn't faze us, but it might bother some users.
Here's where that website data starts getting used. We see suggestions for reporters at WSJ and AllThingsD. Sure enough, we visited those sites recently.
In fact, there are a lot of journalists in these suggestions. Twitter does a lot of outreach to media.
We're now following 10 accounts. Twitter discovered in 2011 that that's a good number to get a user started.
So now we have some media people and celebrities, but not many friends. Importing contacts from email is a pretty standard way social services do that.
But Twitter's working on that, too. We quickly got an email encouraging us to follow more accounts. The more accounts you follow, the better Twitter knows you.
And now even more suggestions. Twitter doesn't target ads based on the websites you visit—but it does target ads based on the accounts you follow, from which its algorithms deduce your interests.
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