WHAT’S REALLY WRONG WITH TWIT­TER

Maybe peo­ple just don’t care for Twit­ter any­more.

HWM (Singapore) - - FRONT PAGE - by Ko­hWanzi

Tweet, tweet. Is that the sound of birds at a new dawn, or rather the valiant peeps of Twit­ter’s fa­mil­iar blue bird, try­ing not to get snuffed out by Face­book and In­sta­gram?

It’s com­mon knowl­edge that Twit­ter is strug­gling. Af­ter swap­ping head hon­chos – Cos­tolo is out, Dorsey is back in – the com­pany an­nounced that it would cut around 8% of its global work­force in a bid to cre­ate smaller and nim­bler engi­neer­ing teams that could re­act faster. There was also talk about stream­lin­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion, clearly part of an ef­fort to give the im­pres­sion that Twit­ter was making it­self anew.

And boy, does it need to. With around 320 mil­lion ac­tive users, Twit­ter trails Face­book’s 1.4 bil­lion users by a large mar­gin. It’s even be­hind In­sta­gram, which came onto the scene only in 2010 (Twit­ter will be 10 next July). In Oc­to­ber, Twit­ter re­leased fig­ures show­ing that not only had it gained a measly four mil­lion ac­tive users that quar­ter, none of them were even from the US!

No di­rec­tion

Ear­lier that month, Twit­ter also launched a brand new ser­vice called Mo­ments, a con­tent dis­cov­ery tool of sorts that al­lowed users to fol­low cu­rated, real-time up­dates on on­go­ing events like the Os­cars, a sports game, or even break­ing news. This was sup­posed to be Twit­ter’s big gam­bit, a fea­ture that would help it rein­vig­o­rate its ex­ist­ing user base and at­tract new users.

But frankly, Mo­ments sounded like a rather bland fea­ture to us, if not just a notso-sub­tle at­tempt to get peo­ple in­ter­ested in the stuff float­ing around on Twit­ter. And then there were polls, which al­lowed users to post ques­tions that could be an­swered with ei­ther a yes or no. On top of that, Twit­ter was re­port­edly ex­per­i­ment­ing with a news tab that would show users trend­ing sto­ries from ma­jor news out­lets.

Taken in­di­vid­u­ally, th­ese aren’t bad ideas at all. But put them to­gether, and the over­all im­pres­sion is that of a com­pany that doesn’t ap­pear to have a clear idea of how to ap­peal to new users. There ap­pears to be a fo­cus on news, but then again ev­ery­one is fo­cus­ing on news – just look at Face­book’s In­stant Ar­ti­cles and Snapchat’s Dis­cover. On the topic of con­tent dis­cov­ery, even In­sta­gram ex­per­i­mented with a cu­rated video chan­nel on Hal­loween, a pos­si­ble pre­lude to a fu­ture fea­ture that would serve up real-time videos re­lated to the event at hand. If any­thing, that just sounds some­thing like a video version of Mo­ments.

The best parts of Twit­ter are also its worst

Twit­ter’s 140 char­ac­ter limit and re­verse chrono­log­i­cal feed is un­like any­thing else of­fered to­day. It sur­passes even Face­book as a plat­form for am­pli­fy­ing so­cial is­sues and rais­ing aware­ness about key move­ments of the day. Af­ter Michael Brown’s shoot­ing in Fer­gu­son in the US, “#Fer­gu­son” started trend­ing strongly on Twit­ter, but the hash­tag was vir­tu­ally lost in Face­book’s al­go­rith­mic fil­ters.

Fur­ther­more, the brevity of each tweet is such that they feel more raw and au­then­tic than any­thing posted on Face­book. Face­book posts are ar­guably more care­fully crafted, with users spend­ing more time on each post, and of­ten post­ing things af­ter the fact. On the other hand, Twit­ter’s char­ac­ter limit fos­ters a more rapid, stac­cato burst of thoughts, and tweets can es­sen­tially be­come the lit­eral stream-of-con­scious­ness of the masses.

The prob­lem is that Twit­ter has been inch­ing per­ilously close to los­ing its iden­tity. At­tempts to ape com­peti­tors – re­mem­ber the over­hauled pro­file page that sud­denly looked a lot like your Face­book pro­file? – have only ex­posed it to de­ri­sion and failed to gen­er­ate enough in­ter­est to rope in new users. And as Robin­son Meyer pointed out in an ar­ti­cle for The At­lantic, Twit­ter sim­u­lates face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion, per­haps be­cause of its ca­sual, off-hand na­ture, but tweets have ended up be­ing taken as se­ri­ously as of­fi­cial state­ments. Just think about how many pub­lic fig­ures have taken flak for a poorly worded tweet, or sim­ply one that was taken out of the con­text of the mo­ment.

As a re­sult, Twit­ter finds it­self in per­pet­ual con­flict with the na­ture of on­line dis­course in the dig­i­tal age. More suited as a ve­hi­cle for spon­ta­neous con­ver­sa­tions and thoughts, Twit­ter is be­ing treated as if a whole lot of grav­ity went into com­pos­ing tweets. This ex­po­sure to harsh scru­tiny takes away some of the ap­peal of the ser­vice. Tweets call for a cer­tain levity, but we’ve been taught that on the In­ter­net, noth­ing ever really goes away. Be­cause users are un­able to rec­on­cile the dis­junc­tion be­tween what Twit­ter ap­pears to en­cour­age and the long mem­ory of the Web, they may pre­fer plat­forms like Face­book and In­sta­gram. You feel more jus­ti­fied in tak­ing longer to post a sta­tus to Face­book, and In­sta­gram is noth­ing if not a care­fully chore­ographed slate of pho­tos.

No one ap­pears to have a prescription for what ails Twit­ter. But maybe the prob­lem lies not with the net­work, and rather the mi­lieu that has grown around it. The qual­i­ties that make it unique are also the very ones that are drag­ging it down. The last thing we need is an­other Face­book, and Twit­ter can­not change its core prod­uct with­out alien­at­ing its cur­rent users. The fu­ture looks un­cer­tain at best, if not down­right bleak. Per­haps Twit­ter will be­come the plat­form of so­ci­ety’s mar­gins, which would ac­tu­ally be a fit­ting out­come given its record as a tool for ral­ly­ing sup­port for var­i­ous so­cial causes. Twit­ter is a great prod­uct, but one that is sub­ject to un­for­tu­nate cul­tural head­winds and out-of-sync with the ma­jor­ity of its au­di­ence.

"The qual­i­ties that make it unique are also the very ones that are

drag­ging it down.”

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