As Twitter’s problems continue to multiply, I’m faced with the discomforting possibility that the entire enterprise might implode like a gargantuan chewing gum bubble.
It started off satisfying and tasty — to carry the metaphor forward a bit — with enough elasticity to encompass a wide array of content and purpose. It was the announcer and the news sharer. The pot-stirrer and the reconciler. It was our inner thoughts on the outside. Over time, though, Twitter has lost its fruity and slightly tangy taste. The substance is still there. It can be meaty, tough, flexible and interesting, but it has also turned stale. The engine that imbued Twitter with its substance, that made it so satisfying — growth — has stalled.
The engine that imbued Twitter with its substance, that made it so satisfying — growth — has stalled.
Don’t get me wrong. To maintain roughly 310-to-320 million monthly active users means that Twitter is constantly adding new ones to replace those who leave. (Maybe. Another school of thought says that no one ever actually deletes their accounts — they just stop using them — so that roughly 300 million number is a true sign of stagnation).
The lack of growth can be felt in small, yet tangible ways.
I look at my own Twitter account as a microcosm of the whole. I used to add dozens, even hundreds of new followers every month. Now, leaving aside Apple events where my live-tweeting can add 300 new followers in a day, my growth closely matches Twitter’s. It never goes down, but the march is slow and incremental, at best.
More worrisome is the quality of new Twitter followers. Almost every single day I gain a handful of spam, porn-filled accounts. These zombie accounts are run by, I think, porn purveyors, looking to build a network of connections that can help drive more views to their titillating content. They often look like hijacked accounts: Early tweets show a rational person retweeting and tweeting out Pablum content and then, quite suddenly, the content changes. It’s depressing.
It’s also cause for concern because it means that the Twitter underbelly of fake, hijacked and spam accounts is still growing and starting to muscle out fresh, new blood.
Not a happy place
Obviously, Twitter’s problems go beyond growth. CEO Jack Dorsey and company have failed to turn Twitter into a truly safe place for its users. The Twitter pack can still turn on its own and devour them alive (chew them up and spit them out so to speak — I’m falling in love with this gum metaphor).
Twitter, though, often even fails in one of its core strengths: News dissemination. It’s is a system that is almost set-up to be gamed.
To be fair, I’m not sure how Twitter can solve this problem. An open playground that prizes free speech will always struggle to shut down the horrible voices. What they say is mean and has no merit, but people have a right to say what they want to say and, especially when they’re anonymous, will do so with wanton abandon.
Twitter, though, often even fails in one of its core strengths: News dissemination. It’s is a system that is almost set-up to be gamed. How often do you look at trends and see something near the top that is either ridiculous or simply wrong and wonder how it got there? For all the technology behind Twitter, it’s often Gorgon-like, with the all the millions of tiny heads sprouting from it ruling the consciousness of the core body.
Money maker and hidden potential
One area where Twitter is succeeding — contrary to popular belief — is in making money. Last quarter it reported more than half a billion dollars in advertising revenue, and 18% increase year-over year. But as a public company, shareholders only look to the future and a future without growth means that revenue growth probably can’t be accelerated or ever maintained in the long term (Twitter should never have gone public). And as those other problems I discussed above grow, the quality of Twitter’s existing audience will be called into question, which will probably further dampen revenue growth and opportunities.
Even back in Twitter’s early days, the heyday of its impact growth and excitement, people would often ask me, “Can Twitter last?” Usually, I told them that, yes, I believed that Twitter would survive, but I always added the caveat that even if it doesn’t, something would come along to take its place. This form of sharing and communication has woven itself deep into the fabric of our culture and lives.
When talking about Twitter’s fortunes, I think we often underestimate its still formidable impact
When talking about Twitter’s fortunes, I think we often underestimate its still formidable impact. It is the metric most in news, media, content creation and culture use to measure success. Facebook certainly shares some of that, but I still think Twitter maintains the corner of the real-time response market.
I worry that those buyers who looked over Twitter and walked away are somehow missing this core fact. They’re fixated on the numbers — growth, revenue projections — and not on the intangibles.
If seen as a platform with a solid base of invested users (say 200 million are real and worthwhile) and something that retains enough flexibility to grow and intersect with an untold number of third-party technologies and content platforms, there’s little downside in the investment.
A buyer or a bitter end
Twitter can, I think, grow and thrive in the right hands.
If Twitter disappears, the gap in the social media universe will be black hole-sized.
As for whose hands. I still think Google with its powerful knowledge graph and impressive AI is the best partner. And while everyone has seemingly walked away, I contend this is just a negotiating ploy. They want, as Twitter is apparently about to do, less fat on the bone and more favorable terms (lower share price and market cap).
When Twitter is done cutting and the deal looks good enough, someone will swoop in and buy Twitter – and likely before the end of this year.
I could be wrong. The gum that is Twitter could be truly used up. There is no such thing as “too big to fail” on the internet.
If that happens though, the gap in the social media universe will be black hole-sized. It will create a gravitational field that will pull in and down personalities, media companies and small voices like mine that found a way to make an impact 140 characters at a time.
It’s not a question of if Twitter can be saved. It’s time to acknowledge that it must be.