What’s happening @Twitter?

If it is true that Twitter is trying to imitate what its rival services are already good at, the logic doesn’t seem sound

Updated - February 12, 2016 01:10 am IST

Published - February 12, 2016 12:49 am IST

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade

What’s happening? That’s the question that sits inconspicuously as a blue placeholder on the text box when one logs on to Twitter. The 320 million monthly active users of this almost decade-old service may not need this prompt to go ahead and engage with the world with the pithiness that has been its USP. It is of deep significance to Twitter, though.

Even into the spectacular early years of growth of this social networking service, this question was a point of major disconnect between its co-founders, as Nick Bilton’s book Hatching Twitter shows. In 2009, three years after its founding, Jack Dorsey, one of its co-founders, wanted Twitter to continue to prompt users to update their status. Evan Williams, the co-founder who was in charge then, believed Twitter was more than just personal updates. So, ‘What are you doing?’ was changed to ‘What’s happening?’

Seven years on, the question ought to be tossed back at Twitter itself.

A lot of things have changed since then, forcing the San Francisco-based company to rethink what it wants to be to the new-age user who seems spoilt for social media choice. Mr. Williams, for one, has long moved on, and has gone on to create the blog-publishing platform called Medium. By the time his replacement as chief executive officer (CEO), Dick Costolo, quit last year, the sheen had already began to wear off Twitter.

A struggling company

Amid these changes, Twitter has clearly come across as a struggling company, not in the least because unhappy investors have kept questioning why its growth in user base isn’t industry-beating any more. In fact, its results for the last quarter of 2015, announced on February 10, made it clear it had effectively added zero new users from the previous quarter.

Mr. Dorsey, who is the CEO now, has had to contend with more bad news. Just last month, four seniors quit the company. And a few days back, its stock price hit a five-year low.

It doesn’t seem that long back that Twitter burst onto the scene to become the news-breaker of our times. Its importance as a medium skyrocketed after protesters in Iran and Egypt used it to organise themselves. So much so that they came to be known as ‘Twitter Revolutions’. It didn’t take long for governments and celebrities to realise its importance, and the queue of high-profile new entrants continues to this day.

So what has gone so wrong that questions are now being asked as to how Twitter will save itself? Yes, not having even one quarter of profit to date is a concern. And so is a stagnant user base.

But it’s important to ask a counter-question: is too much ambition Twitter’s problem? Perhaps inadvertently, Twitter has through its journey been compared with Facebook, which was founded a couple of years before Twitter. Facebook’s ascent in recent years has been spectacular. What has to be understood, however, is that they are intrinsically two different products.

Twitter finds itself playing in the same battleground as the biggies, the likes of Facebook and Google, which have between them ten products with a whopping billion-plus user base. Adding to this are relatively new services such as Snapchat, which are a huge hit with younger users.

Twitter now wants to attract more users. One way it believes that could be achieved is to tweak its timeline to one that’s algorithmically ordered from one that was conveniently chronological (or, as some critics of the new move say, a real timeline). That’s how it’s immensely more successful rival Facebook orders user posts.

The other tweak, which media reports suggest Twitter is working on, is to remove the 140-character barrier, making it possible for users to publish really long articles. The fairly well-received Medium, which Mr. Williams founded, has made a name for itself in this.

Problem of pithiness

The reasoning could be, in Twitter’s case, its defining feature of pithiness may also be its problem. It is very easy to get overwhelmed by a flood of tweets, without engaging well with any of them. The brands worry a lot about such things. Some fixes to correct this haven’t worked too well. But, isn’t there value in a chronological stream of short posts, millions and millions of them every day?

What these attempted tweaks seem to suggest is that Twitter wants to endear itself to a whole new audience, by trying to imitate what its rival services are already good at. If true, the logic doesn’t seem sound. Trying to be everything for everybody doesn’t seem like a good strategy. In fact, this could prove counterproductive, with the new experience frustrating its existing users.

It is intriguing that the service that singularly booted out all of the news media in the area of breaking news is struggling to make a business case with 320 million users. Not every service needs to have, and can have, a billion users, right?


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