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Twitter creator Jack Dorsey on user retention, Facebook comparisons

May 18, 2009 |  3:34 pm
Twitter-unfiltered
Twitter creator Jack Dorsey says the service needs to do a better job of hooking new users. Credit: carrotcreative via Flickr

The mastermind behind Twitter isn't denying that his website has a problem keeping new users. The issue came up in an April report from Nielsen saying 60% of Twitter neophytes don't come back after the first month.

Twitter is brainstorming ways to improve the service so newbies get hooked right away, said site chairman and creator Jack Dorsey over lunch in Washington, D.C., last week. The best way to do that is to connect users immediately with others they'll be interested in.

Dorsey's co-founder Biz Stone told The Times in February that the Suggested Users list that's presented to brand-new users is a step toward accomplishing that goal. A similar list was around in 2006 when Twitter launched.

The feature has skyrocketed the popularity of users who get that endorsement -- netting an average of 53,000 new followers in an account's first week since being featured, O'Reilly writes. But it's not the ideal solution for the user retention problem, Dorsey said.

"Our sign-up process is still fairly weak," Dorsey said. "It's not the best way to suggest people to new users because they're . . . not relevant to everyone. We just choose a random 20" selections from a pool of picks by Twitter staff, he said.

Grabbing new users from the get-go is one of the bigger challenges facing the company.

"It's a hard problem to solve," Dorsey said. "And the company is . . .

. . . just on the edge of doing something about it. But I think it happens through search, basically."

Twitter recently redesigned its home page to incorporate search, giving users a window into others who might have the same interests.

But Dorsey and his team are still focusing substantial effort on keeping the site working.

"We're still building the utility aspect," Dorsey said. "So we're still doing a lot of stability work. Along those lines, we want to sustain more people, so we need to work on the product to add features to promote more usage. And in order to sustain that whole thing, we need revenue at some point."

There's a social network that doesn't seem to be having any of those problems right now, though. Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg says revenue growth is "really strong." It has more than 200 million active users.

Facebook has also come to resemble Twitter more strongly.

"We're definitely flattered because it is moving more into our direction," Dorsey said of Facebook's recent redesign, which emphasizes status updates. He said the changes seem to do a good job of simplifying Facebook.

"I don't think it takes away from Twitter," he said. "There's a few differences that are very crucial between Facebook and Twitter."

One difference is how users interact. Facebook often centers on real-world relationships. In order to receive someone's updates on Facebook, that person must first authorize you to do so. That barrier isn't there, for the most part, on Twitter.

"The other big thing is search," Dorsey said. On Twitter, "people are not only following people, but they're following topics. They're following locations. They're following keywords and hashtags and conversations."

"You can't do that right now on Facebook," he continued. "They may change the service again. They may get more and more close to what we're doing."

-- Mark Milian [follow]

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