How is Twitter going to become more popular in the U.S. without alienating its current users?

I'm pulling up my seat to watch the show.

The company's stock is on a tear, raising expectations that it will be the next, new mainstream media powerhouse like Facebook. With each upward tick of the share price, pressure builds on the unprofitable San Francisco firm to prove that it is more than a niche service.

To do that, Twitter needs more users to attract more advertisers. And to get them, it is going to have to make the service more welcoming, easier to understand and more relevant to people's lives.

 In this photo illustration, the Twitter logo and hashtag ’#Ring!’ is displayed on a mobile device as the company announced its initial public
In this photo illustration, the Twitter logo and hashtag '#Ring!' is displayed on a mobile device as the company announced its initial public offering and debut on the New York Stock Exchange on November 7, 2013. (Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

The reality is that while 30-somethings, the middle-aged and even seniors have flocked to Facebook in recent years, they aren't going to Twitter in the same numbers.

Facebook is cozy and inviting; log on for a peek into the lives of friends, family and acquaintances. Twitter, in contrast, often feels like walking into someone's (younger) conversation.

In the U.S., 84 percent of Internet users are not on Twitter, according to the Pew Research Center. People often sample and then leave.

"Many new users try it for a couple of hours, they don't see the benefits and they stop using Twitter," said Nico Schoonderwoerd, a director of PeerReach, a social media data company based in Amsterdam, Holland. "If they really want to be one of the big social networks, they need to make it more accessible."


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But making Twitter easier to use could mess with what a lot of users like about the service, which was founded in 2006.

Many people like me enjoy the great Twitter chaos, how it is a seemingly random conversation stream that you dip in and out of. And they like the strange juxtapositions: a tweet on the nearest cupcake truck can be next to a President Barack Obama tweet promoting his health care law.

The company has done things recently to be more welcoming to newcomers, such as offering a starter page explaining how to use Twitter. It has introduced ways to remind you of Twitter if you should forget about it: It will send emails and text messages if someone "retweets" a tweet or "favorites" a tweet.

But efforts to simplify its feature for blocking users, or to better display ongoing conversations, were met with user backlash.

Ben Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, said that Twitter needs to figure out how to make the service relevant within 10 minutes of a person signing up. It needs to ask people their interests and offer up popular Twitter users to follow.

"There is that initial hump," he said. "You need to be following a fair amount of people so that every time you come back, you have an active timeline." Timeline is Twitter-speak for the tweets you see when you check the service.

And Schoonderwoerd says Twitter should do better at figuring out what people are talking about and pull up the most relevant tweets. "If I tweet, 'I'm on a train,' which is irrelevant, people have to sift through that to find something important," he said.

And there is another issue: What to say on Twitter? People feel they need to tweet to exist on Twitter, but many do not. Often they are scared and for good reason.

Each week brings stories of the consequences of an ill-conceived tweet by a politician or celebrity. One of the most recent was a public relations executive for IAC fired after her insensitive tweet about getting AIDS in Africa went viral.

By now, most people know that a degree of caution is necessary when saying anything online. It is the air we breathe, part and parcel of a new medium. But even the most savvy make mistakes. Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has made her own posting faux pas, and she suggested that people should tap a designated driver to be their editor to stop social media posts (especially after a couple of beers).

For people just signing up, Twitter could offer a feature that would present a pop-up window before a tweet is sent. It could read: "Are you sure you want to send this? Any misspellings? OK, tweet."

Of course, that wouldn't work for the old Twitter hands, who would scoff at such a training-wheels approach.

The reality is that it may be futile for Twitter, which has the desirable teen and 20-something set, to try to become a mass medium.

"Facebook kind of works for everyone," said Bajarin. "Twitter may not be for everyone."

If that's the case, the investors who have been bidding up the firm's stock with abandon may be in for a nasty surprise.

Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@mercurynews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/michellequinn.