Why did Twitter open up direct messaging to everyone?

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The big news last night that Twitter is changing the way that it works, so that users can DM each other, even if they’re not following each other.

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Don’t worry – it looks like you’ll be able to opt out of the functionality, but it does seem like a strange decision for a company that has come under increased scrutiny with demands that it do something about all of the abuse and public shaming it enables. Campaigners have long suggested features like limiting visible mentions to people you already follow – so it seems bizarre for Twitter to go completely the other way.

So what’s going on?

Essentially, it is about two of the problems facing Twitter: money and scale.

Let’s start with money. Twitter is still struggling to figure out how to turn tweets into cash, to the same extent that rival Facebook has. Sure, there’s sponsored tweets, but the options for monetisation are rather slim.

By opening up DMs, Twitter makes itself a better proposition for companies and brands. As everyone knows, most big companies already have a Twitter presence for fielding customer support queries and the like, but it isn’t completely seamless. As communications are public by default, asking customers to hand over account numbers and bank details is an obvious no-no. As such, many exchanges end up with the brand asking the customer to follow them, so they can DM and discuss it.

By removing this step by enabling DMs for all, Twitter suddenly makes it a more frictionless experience – and gives brands another channel through which to communicate with us more easily, and more personally too. Presumably Twitter will further monetise these interactions by offering companies a richer suite of tools to analyse and engage with customers like this.

Don’t be surprised if we start seeing DMs used in a similar way to Facebook’s forthcoming Messenger platform, where instead of using emails, companies use DMs to send us notifications.

Then there’s the problem of scale. Twitter has been growing slower than competing platforms, and as other social networks have discovered, with the users that you do have, there’s a limit to the amount of social networking they want to do. So the challenge for Twitter is how can it get users to spend more time with their eyeballs on their Twitter app?

In recent years though we’ve seen a surge in the number of messaging apps. Not just iMessage, WhatsApp, Snapchat and the like – but other apps have pivoted to better support private messaging between people. Both Instagram and Vine, on top of their core functions, now have pretty advanced messaging apps built in. Facebook has even launched an entirely separate messenger app.

By opening up DMs Twitter has, in effect, turned the DM feature into a fully-fledged messaging app. Not so long ago it launched the ability to send photos and embed tweets into DMs, and now it has taken the final step and removed the last barrier to messaging anyone on the service. This could mean more eyeballs on Twitter, and more new users attracted by the network effect of their friends all being on Twitter. Don’t be surprised if at some point Twitter lifts the 140-character limit on DMs.

Whether the move will go down well with Twitter’s existing userbase remains to be seen – but as a commercial entity, it is only doing what the business people want. Its another good reminder that if you’re not paying to use something, you are the product being sold.

James O’Malley