A couple of years ago, I read a book called The Curve by Nicholas Lovell, which explained how consumers will often pay more when there is no set price. It looks at the rise of free-to-play mobile games, which are enjoyed for nothing by many, but are so adored by some that these 'superfans' will part with thousands of pounds to play them.
Lovell writes that businesses must "not be afraid of giving some things away for free...[but] value lies in how you make people feel...Small numbers of high spenders are enough to fuel a profitable business."
Twitter needs to read The Curve, because giving its loyal fans the option to pay how much they think it is worth could be the key to survival. Four executives leaving in January kicked off what is quickly becoming a difficult year for Twitter. In February the company made a mess of launching a new feature to deliver more important tweets first, then it reported that, for the first time, the number of people using Twitter had fallen.
Still not making any money – it lost $90m (£62m) in the three months to February – Twitter saw its user base fall slightly from 307 million to 305 million. More worryingly, Twitter's share price has fallen from over $50 (£34) in April 2015 to $15 (£10) now, as investors fear it has lost sight of Facebook (1.5 billion users) and is being caught by Instagram and Snapchat.
With that dreary news in mind, here are some ways in which I think Twitter could change for the better.
Twitter is a brilliant tool for journalism
This is going to sound selfish, but Twitter needs to recognise how important a tool it is for journalists. I work on a PC, but right next to it, for nine hours every day – and often at home too – I have my MacBook open and Tweetdeck running full-screen. I follow around 1,400 people, almost all journalists, PRs, brands and other news publications. This is my news feed, my wire. If news breaks anywhere in the world, it will likely appear on this screen within seconds.
It is also a tool for finding out what's going on – search '[train station] fire alert' or '[shopping centre] evacuated' and photos from the scene will be right there. Click on one, tweet the poster a question, exchange DMs and you have yourself a story.
Twitter should start charging journalists a small fee for a handful of unique features. I'd happily pay a few pounds a month for Twitter as it is, more to remove adverts, and more still to get a few journalist-friendly features. Maybe the ability to send direct messages to anyone, once I've uploaded documents to prove who I am.
That's journalists sorted, but maybe their publications could pay too? Instead of pushing notifications through their own apps like the BBC and Guardian do, news sites could have a Twitter hub which pushes tweets about significant stories to their followers, who would configure the app to only give the alerts they want from their preferred news sites. If full-on, phone-buzzing notifications are too invasive, these tweets could appear at the top of the news feed when the app is opened.
It works for sport too. Fans could pay to subscribe to a Twitter channel about their favourite team, which would gather up all relevant tweets from journalists, players, the club itself and other fans, then put them in a dedicated column, away from the main timeline. This also provides a neat solution to following loads of people without turning your timeline into an unreadable mess, scrolling far too quickly.
What about music? Follow a Glastonbury Festival hub and have a column populated with tweets, photos, videos etc from the site. This is what Twitter Moments was supposed to do, but it hasn't really been implemented properly, instead focusing too heavily on images and less on the stories they tell.
Algorithms, algorithms, algorithms...
If Twitter is going to ever be more than a constant streaming list of tweets in reverse chronological order, then it needs to have the best algorithms in town. Twitter needs to understand not only what its users want, but what they are trying to say. Just days after changes brought 'important' tweets to the top of users timelines, Transport For London said it would be tweeting less about minor delays on the Tube network, because these were appearing out of order and confusing people.
To me, this is proof that Twitter doesn't fully understand what it is being used for. It is, largely, a platform for promotion and information. Right now, as I write this, I have an eye on Twitter for reactions to the closure of The Independent newspaper, and live tweeting from the trial of football Adam Johnson. Both, especially the trial, only work on a platform which can act as a live scrolling news feed. Opening my phone later and seeing tweets from the trial in the wrong order is going to be confusing.
More content, same length tweets
Increasing the maximum tweet length from 140 to 10,000 characters, as suggested by boss Jack Dorsey, is crazy. Each tweet would fill an entire column of Tweetdeck, or the whole of your phone screen, making users less keen to scroll and more likely to switch off. But long-form content still has a place here.
Twitter should buy Medium, the blogging platform. That way, users could write a 500- or 1,000-word essay and embed it into a tweet. Tap the tweet to see the entire post expand within the Twitter app. Readers could then reply with a short message in a tweet, or a longer message in a Medium-branded reply. Now Twitter becomes a platform for debate without users chucking 140-characters spats at each other.
Why don't we all just pay?
Really. Why don't we all just pay a small fee each year to use Twitter? Only a couple of pounds a year would bring in a good chunk of cash and at that level I feel the majority would pay, but trolls looking to make throwaway accounts to hurl abuse would be put off. There is surely no quicker way to get rid of users who aren't that bothered about Twitter, while keeping those who really value what the service brings them.
Of course, this will never be a reality. Look at what happened what news sites tried to get readers to pay. Once something is free there is no way back, which in Twitter's case is a real shame.
I asked Lovell about this, and he raised an idea of his own: "The most likely outcome is the Facebook model: do a bait and switch by encouraging people to build up a huge following on your 'free' platform then abruptly change the rules by telling them that their followers will no longer be able to see their Tweets unless the brand or artist pays. 'Nice audience you've built up there, it would be shame if you suddenly couldn't talk to them any more because you didn't pay us just a little money'. Twitter has already taken the first steps in this direction. I think it's quite likely."
Take my money, and my name
Would requiring users to give their real name when creating an account solve Twitter's trolling problem? I think it would help a great deal and adds a level of accountability, but does this somehow impact our freedom and our right to free speech? No doubt some will object but, as with paying, I can't see the majority complaining too much.
Twitter will no doubt have dozens of ideas like these in the pipeline, but it needs to execute them clearly and far more effectively than the recent timeline changes.