This post is about the recent revival of mobile private messaging clients and it’s potential impact on Twitter. Within the past two weeks, a number of mobile apps have come to our attention in unison because of their growth. One consistent element of these applications, which are social and mobile in nature, is the element of private (and in some cases, group-based) messaging. Adding to the likes of straight-up SMS, iMessage for iOS and MightyText for Android, apps from Asia like WeChat, Line, and Kakao all boast private messaging channels that act as SMS but have many additional features within those chat channels such as sharing location, emoticons, and of course, stickers. More recently, before SXSW ’13, we were all talking about it because of Path 3.0 (which includes private messaging) and the launch of MessageMe, a very slick mobile chat app which is built around this construct entirely.
Now, why labor through all this context? Because, in order to understand the implications of this trend on Twitter, we have to go back even further. For this argument, we must delineate between Twitter “web” and Twitter “mobile.” Before the current incarnation of Twitter’s native mobile client, at least on iOS, Twitter for iPhone featured their own private messaging, or DMs, quite prominently. Same could be said for Twitter “web” which had a mailbox button on the nav-bar. Those were the old days. Now DMs are buried by their new interfaces: On web, a Twitter user has to make multiple clicks to find their DMs, which open in a pop-up modal and is generally buggy as hell, especially for sending DMs to those accounts which follow you but you don’t follow; on Twitter for iPhone, DMs are also buried compared to the third-party client I use, TweetBot. I can only assume the rational at Twitter HQ with respect to DMs was to nudge the user to publicly tweet because it’s just easier, and because Twitter records and trumpets the total number of tweets pumped into the system. In other words, DMs don’t add to the bottom-line.
But, since that UI decision with respect to DMs, the world has changed. SnapChat’s expiring pictures and screenshot notifications now raises the bar on what privacy means. The mobile messaging clients listed above all boast private channels for us to communicate on quickly and with more rich media options. Traditional SMS, iMessage, and Facebook Messenger are mainstream communication tools that users know won’t end up in the open on Facebook or Twitter. And, there in lies the rub for Twitter — as more of these options take root on our phones, Twitter’s openness, which is a great strength, could also become a weakness. My hope is that Twitter HQ observes this trend and give their private messaging channel — the DM — the attention it deserves. If I were at Twitter, I’d view this trend as a potential threat, especially given the rate of growth from places like Asia.