Has Twitter Entered its Twilight or is it on the Cusp of Greatness?

Twitter stock dropped sharply today as a lock-up agreement expired. Is the social network doomed?



Twitter claims its less-active users reflect a more streamlined experience. The Atlantic, however, has a different theory: “Twitter has entered its twilight.”

In the 1,800-word “Eulogy for Twitter” Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Meyer write: “[Twitter’s] influence on publishing will remain, but the platform’s place in Internet culture is changing in a way that feels irreversible and echoes the tradition of AIM and pre-2005 blogging.”

According to The Atlantic, people are still using Twitter, but they are no longer hanging out there. The network hasn’t been growing in a way that will sustain highly-engaged users — some of whom believe Twitter has changed because of spam, hate speech and unverified content. Others lament Twitter’s signal-to-noise ratio.

But once media types of a certain stripe professionalize their accounts, they become like [Ezra] Klein’s: all scheduled tweets and broadcast links. They care about the writers they’d care about anyway — who often already have their own platform — and reply to them. Otherwise, they seem to ignore the stream.
It’s users like Klein who contribute to the sense that Twitter’s period of openness — this window when people looking to do something other than self-promotion might join—may be ending.

The Atlantic admits it’s a bit condescending and even sad to conclude that we’ve simply outgrown Twitter and says the network’s own users are partially to blame for the shift:

All this attention on a platform that’s not that widely used may feel outsized, but that’s because its influence on publishing is gigantic: Twitter is the platform that led us into the mobile Internet age. It broke our habit of visiting individual news homepages first thing in the morning, and established behaviors built around real-time news consumption and production. It normalized mobile publishing power. It changed our expectations about how we congregate around shared events. Twitter has done for social publishing what AOL did for email. But nobody has AOL accounts anymore.

In another theory, Twitter’s problem is marketing. Business and technology strategist Ben Thompson says Twitter’s initial concept was so good that it never bothered with “market-fit.

I think this actually gets to the problem with Twitter: the initial concept was so good, and so perfectly fit such a large market, that they never needed to go through the process of achieving product market fit.
The problem, though, was that by skipping over the wrenching process of finding a market, Twitter still has no idea what their market actually is, and how they might expand it. Twitter is the company-equivalent of a lottery winner who never actually learns how to make money, and now they are starting to pay the price.

Slate pushed back against The Atlantic, saying that Twitter is not only not dying, but is on the cusp of getting much bigger: “But Wall Street — along with everyone else who’s down on Twitter because it has ‘a growth problem’ — is making a mistake by comparing it to Facebook.”

Twitter functions primarily as a social media platform, not a social media network, argues Will Oremus. Networks and platforms, in this sense, cannot be judged by the same metrics.

Moreover, Twitter functions more as a news service than a social network by helping people keep up with influential others and what’s going on in the world at any given moment.

“Twitter’s active users then, are only the most easily-measured portion of its audience. And the number of timelines people view on the site or app does not capture the service’s vast reach.”

Here’s what Wall Street needs to understand: Since Facebook is made up of a huge number of roughly equivalent individual users, its volume of “monthly active users” is a reasonable way to measure its growth and scope. Twitter comprises a relatively small number of public figures broadcasting their messages publicly and a somewhat larger direct audience. That makes “monthly active users” a crude metric at best, since one group of users is very different from the other.
To further complicate things, Twitter’s most influential users do not tweet with the expectation that they’ll be heard only with the people who follow them directly. Rather, they treat the platform like it’s a one-way TV interview, using Twitter to break news, to win arguments, to build their brands, to hone their public personas. That’s because they understand that some of their tweets are likely to resonate far beyond Twitter.com and the Twitter app. The photo that Barack Obama tweeted when he won re-election was viewed by tens of millions of Americans who have never used Twitter. Ditto Ellen’s Oscars selfie.
Even if you’ve never signed up for Twitter, you’ve almost certainly been part of the audience for tweets, whether they’re displayed on television, quoted on the radio, or embedded in an article like this one. Whether you choose to or not, you’re likely to see more in the months and years to come. Yet you won’t show up in any of the metrics Wall Street is relying on to assess its growth.

In the short term, active users and timeline views are how Twitter makes money; advertisers buy promoted tweets in a user’s timeline, and only active users are exposed to ads.

Like Twitter, YouTube comprises two broad classes of users: content creators and viewers. The difference is that you can still get the full YouTube experience if you visit the site without an account. And so YouTube is able to report more than 1 billion “unique visitors” per month—unique visitors being a metric more appropriate to media platforms than social networks.
Don’t be surprised to see Twitter become more YouTube-like, turning its home page into a real-time news platform accessible to anyone, whether they’re logged in or not. That would expand its potential user base to include, for the first time, the majority of Americans who have no interest in either tweeting or curating their own Twitter timelines. If and when that happens, I doubt we’ll be hearing much about Twitter’s growth problem—let alone its demise.

And the company is beginning to make money on ads that appear on third-party mobile apps outside of Twitter, similar to how Google reaches people using AdSense even when they are not using a Google product.

Twitter says it can go beyond its 255 million active users to reach 1 billion iOS and Android users via MoPub, the mobile advertising platform it acquired last year. And Twitter is also likely to find new ways to capitalize on its vast indirect audience in the future.

“For example, those tweets you see embedded in articles online could come with their own advertisements, analogous to the pre-roll ads that play before embedded YouTube videos. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo hinted as much in an interview on CNBC on Wednesday.”

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