Repainting bad eggs won't solve Twitter's leaky bucket problem

Twitter has changed the default egg-like profile it gives new users, but it's not solving the "bad egg" problem, or helping regular users to cope with them

Default Twitter profiles

Default Twitter profiles over the years...


Image credit: Twitter

Twitter users were shocked today when thousands of eggs disappeared, but cosmetic changes are unlikely to fix the service's main problem, which is retaining new users. It's what's known in the marketing world as a "leaky bucket".

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New Twitter profile image

Twitter has been giving new users an egg-like profile picture since 2010, with the idea that they'd replace it will a real photo or at least a distinctive icon. That would be a reasonable assumption if new users were intending to create a profile and chat with old and new friends, as most of them do on Facebook or LinkedIn. In Twitter's case, however, the eggs came to symbolize hit-and-run trolls, spammers, bots, and other undesirables. The basic program appears to be:

10 create a new account

20 get blocked a lot

30 goto 10

In a blog post announcing the change, Twitter said: "We've noticed patterns of behavior with accounts that are created only to harass others - often they don't take the time to personalize their accounts. This has created an association between the default egg profile photo and negative behavior, which isn't fair to people who are still new to Twitter and haven't yet personalized their profile photo."

Twitter clearly has an onboarding problem if it can't even get users to upload a profile photo, or it wouldn't have needed eggs in the first place. It's not as though Twitter asked newbies to do any real work, such as add their hobbies, work qualifications or educational backgrounds.

Twitter also has a "leaky bucket" problem because it can't get enough users to stick around. Twitter has reportedly had more than a billion sign-ups, but it still only has 319 million users. Facebook can add that sort of number in around 18 months.

Easy come, easy go. Users who have contributed nothing to Twitter have nothing to lose when they're blocked or banned.

In my experience, even enthusiastic Twitter users drop out. Services such as ManageFlitter let users analyze the people they are following and list the inactive ones. My "inactive" list includes at least two followers who have made more than 30,000 tweets, and two who have made more than 40,000. Some of these inactive accounts are nine or 10 years old.

This week, Twitter also changed the way its system worked, which may upset a percentage of current users. On the Motherboard blog, Sarah Jeong complained: The New Twitter @-Replies Are Giving Me an Ulcer

For quite a long time, Twitter has been promising to change the structure of tweets to give people more space to write in. The plan was to remove the @names - the people you are tweeting to - and links to photos etc from the 140 character allowance, as shown in the diagram below.

That was a sensible plan, but the implementation has created problems. The one that's annoying Jeong is "the canoe problem" where up to 50 users are targeted in a single tweet. This is insane. A healthy limit would be five users. Even at that level, there should be an extremely obvious and easy way for individuals to bail out of the canoe. At this point, I can't see one.

I'm therefore further resigned to another of Twitter's curses: I'm included in crackpot arguments that run for days, with dozens or even hundreds of unwanted notifications cluttering my timeline.

If Twitter really wants to improve its service, it could make things easier for its core users, instead of focusing its efforts on the bad eggs who really don't care.

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Twitter announced that it was changing the structure of tweets last year. It had already changed the back end to make images free. This week it changed the front end, where user names appear.

Image credit: Twitter

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