On Tuesday Fleets became one of the biggest trending topics on Twitter all over the world, with users getting in on the fun of using them for all kinds of games and other farewell practices, many of them for the first time ever. It was an enjoyable and in a weird way, heartwarming practice, but it arguably highlighted what was the most obvious truth about Fleets: like it or not, they were never truly meant for Twitter, and that’s why they got shut down.
At the end of 2019, we wrote about how stories from Snapchat where one of the most influential technologies of the past decade, mainly because they created a new form of viewing media content that spread throughout social media apps and beyond. The obvious Facebook Instagram, and WhatsApp copycats are known, but beyond that stories(and story-like formats) where adopted even by the likes of Spotify , YouTube, LinkedIn and various news apps. They were a hit, and everyone wanted to get in on the trend of having stories especially on their mobile apps. The only problem is, as many of us have noticed , stories don’t exactly fit in everywhere . While visual social media apps like Instagram could adopt them almost instantly (and beat out the competition while doing it) , apps like LinkedIn have don’t exactly seem to know what to do with them. Twitter largely falls into the latter category, seemingly due to the platform’s focus on text (despite vast support for media as well) and how it focuses on conversations not individual media posts that disappear after some time. It’s not exactly a formula that’s written in stone, but it does seem to be on that’s mostly guided the platform and company’s general growth as well as their moves to keep things that way. Fleets on the other hand felt like a “me too” move, one guided out of not wanting to miss a trend and throwing every idea at the wall as opposed to actually fully committing to it. Their integration felt incomplete, lacking many of the expected features (re-posting ability, tagging) that Instagram and Snapchat had and always seeming like an afterthought in terms of updates as well.
User adoption was seemingly hit or miss too. Now don’t get me wrong, I know that likely the people reading this are the ones who actually used fleets pretty often, whether for personal or branding reasons. We can relate, we used them too, but apparently the stats and adoption Twitter expected weren’t exactly what happened, being so low as to force the company to shut them down just a year after they were first released. It brings up the question as to whether Fleets could have become more widespread if they would have gotten more updates or more robust features anyway, as “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t always apply in tech, and with social media apps there’s always a delicate balance. Twitter could have pushed fleets into one’s Timeline as Facebook and Instagram do, but chances are that would ruin the experience for many, as some users already hate the amount of embedded YouTube videos and ads on the Timeline, thus Fleets would just make that worse.
So were fleets all bad? Of course not. Social Media in itself can be a very subjective experience, and as we already mentioned clearly some users had found a way to use and adapt them, probably as one of the few bright spots twitter would see in their user data. But Twitter as a company has always been one that’s more versatile and maneuverable in its strategies, and this wouldn’t be one of the first products or features they’ve killed. Vine is probably the first and most popular Twitter owned product to come to mind, but so does Periscope as well. Both are curiously enough video based apps, one for short-form video that continues to live on even beyond Vine’s death, and the other for live video streaming that continues to be popular on Facebook and Instagram while its infrastructure is used for Twitter’s live-streaming backend as well. Both however, seemingly still didn’t fit Twitter’s vision of what the app’s future needed to be , or simply got adopted by the competition in a way that made them redundant. But unlike Fleets enough both were Twitter owned or designed products where Twitter was ahead of the pack, being the first or one of the first to introduce the form of media or make it popular. Fleets again, were not. Their nature as a “catch-up” move made them something that never truly gained relevance for Twitter, even if, ironically enough, the Fleets bar at the top made way for something new from Twitter that seems to be doing much better: Spaces.
Spaces, while being another “me too” move by Twitter (copying social audio apps like Clubhouse this time) have fared much better than fleets have in their first few months of release. While ironically also being a media format, they lean into what Twitter already does best, discussions and long-running conversations. They’re an audible way of people expressing the same thoughts they do in tweets, and so far they have mostly been a hit. Twitter themselves came up with them to capitalize on the social audio formula apps like Clubhouse have recently popularized, and while their general bid to do that was to make people spend even more time on Twitter, its generally worked out possibly better than they expected. Social audio is a new format in social media and this time Twitter seems to be more ahead or right in line with the curve than behind it again, with many people first experiencing the format on Spaces and likely not going anywhere else. It’s a sign of what happens when Twitter integrates (or copies) the right features into it’s app, and doesn’t feel forced or half-hearted in the same way Fleets did. But it can always be interesting to think that in some ways fleets definitely added to the existence of spaces, and it’s interesting to think how one may not exist without the other.
As such, Fleets become another lesson in the trial-and-error approach of development that Twitter and a lot of the tech industry tends to follow (looking at you Google), but they can hopefully be remembered fondly for they few moments they did work or bring a positive response on the timeline. Even if it was on Tuesday when some people acted ”risky” to celebrate the disappearing feature. Now let’s just hope Spaces never suffer the same fate. Farewell Fleets, you served your purpose well, even if you never should have existed.