Twitter has come under a lot of pressure recently. It seems they are being beaten by whoever feels like letting out a rant. In my opinion it is important to differentiate where the criticism is directed to.
I think there are two layers that need to differentiated:
- Twitter, the company, its management and executive leadership team
- Twitter, the product or service and the value it provides to its users
Lots of the ranting you can find all over the place seems rather undirected and I believe it is important and an imperative of fairness to look more closely towards what is wrong, what is not and what should change and what is pretty much ok. Joshua Topolski’s “The End of Twitter”, published in The New Yorker is a very good example for this. They way the company has been shuffling key people and responsibilities in their organization lets many of us justifiably raise the eyebrows. But the article in my opinion mixes those two layers of “company” and “product” and thus draws such a negative picture about the company & product that I do not share.
Bumpy times, even more since Dorsey’s comeback as CEO
After some back and forth in key management functions throughout the last years, and finally Dick Costolo resigning as CEO last July, they brought back their founder Jack Dorsey on board as CEO last fall. That is, brought him back as part-time CEO while still being Square’s CEO in parallel. You would imagine a company in the state of Twitter could use a full-time CEO to spend 100% of the attention in rough times. So it was no surprise that some more management shuffling would come up. Dorsey had announced a respective reshaping right away. Late January the news broke of departures of four key SVP and VP level managers in key functions like Head of Media, Head of Product, Head of Engineering and Head of HR. That is employees learnt that from external media sources. On Jan 25, Dorsey tried to make the best of a bad job and tweeted the official news, but tried to phrase it as some coincidence that all four managers had been voluntarily planning to take some well-deserved time off… sure thing! That could have been carried out a little better. Afterwards we have learnt that the boss of TWitter’s Vine video streaming service is leaving, too.
Share price suffering badly – but sitting on immense amount of cash
No surprise this has led to an even an additional sharp drop to an already suffering share price which has lost around 70% of its value in the last 12 months. But it is also clear that their stock performance is not necessarily the right measure if and how much in trouble their product is. And, from a pure financial point of view, the pressure could be worse since they are sitting on a pile of cash. CNBC did the math and found out they could run another 412 years on their current burn rate before they run out of cash. I wonder how substantial the point is to ask about the nearing end of Twitter?
Twitter is unique and provides distinct value to its users and fans
So let’s in turn take a look at the product side of things and the core value it represents to its users. Twitter has a strong fan base and more than 300m regularly active users. They love Twitter for offering:
- real-time publishing, real-time interactions and real-time discovery of news content; it is still pretty much the number 1 way to get news and before anywhere else
- a platform for finding out what your relevant people and information sources have to say, usually beyond the regular everyday chitchat (when you follow the right people and accounts)
- a strong channel to promote elaborated content: your blog, your articles, your art, etc.
- a great spot for celebrities who use the platform to interact more intimately with their fans and share the kinds of details they probably would never provide to traditional celebrity media
Sure, services like Facebook or Instagram can and do cover a lot of these use cases. But neither one of them is clear cut in exactly that kind of space. Facebook is so much more and provides a much more cluttered and bloated user-experience and Instagram is by nature very visual and not text-/words-centric and doesn’t even allow links and references to outside sources and locations. At least not without tricks and hacks.
Twitter is a medium made for open and non-audience restricted publishing. Yes, you can set your account to private but that applies to only around 10% of accounts (as some stats from a few years back showed). That’s what makes it really different from Facebook where you have a lot of privacy restricted content coming to you (and only to you and respective “friends”) as part of your Facebook newsfeed.
Don’t compare active users with Facebook and Instagram because it is not the same use case ballpark
I believe that a very crucial piece of assessment is the user base and the potentially addressable user base where Twitter has a degree of appeal. And this is certainly very different from that of Facebook and Instagram. The unbelievably rich feature set and use cases of Facebook and Facebook being the place where you share and consume private/restricted content with your friends gives it a much bigger appeal for the “John Doe” user. Instagram on the other hand with its visual and photo/snapshot focus makes it so much easer to use for anyone to produce content that has some sort of value for friends/followers. All of these services are essentially offering something else that is not Twitter: they are not a microblogging service where ideas and opinions are exchanged in real-time.
I recently found a neat little comparison relating exactly those three services to real life situation in a Medium post by Gary Vaynerchuck. He says Facebook is where you go for updates on family and friends, Instagram is beautiful photo content and Twitter is like the conversation at a cocktail party. It kind of like that.
So, keeping this in mind, it is not a crime for Twitter to only have around 320 million monthly active users vs. a number 4-5 times that size at Facebook and more than 400m over at Instagram (where Instagram has passed Twitter in this metric in 2015). Given the much more limited set of use cases and purpose of use I believe Twitter has been doing a pretty great job at engaging such a large number of active users. Their current size represents an enormous utility. Twitter does not need to be the size of Facebook or where Instagram is likely heading to be a sustainable business. What my point is here: I have a problem with that kind of media that just compares user base numbers and derives a player like Twitter as a loser. That is comparing apples and oranges. I prefer a more substiantial comparison and respective classification of what a decent user base size is and what not.
Twitter is a service for people who have something to say and who want to promote and share elaborated thoughts, stories and yes, sometimes videos and pictures. That does not mean that there is not a lot of bulls… on the service. It actually is. But the Twittersphere represents very substantial value for celebrities, celebrity followers, politicians, entrepreneurs, writers, authors, tech geeks and anyone who produces significant and unique content and updates. And of course for people who want to passively consume that.
Product needs more work to stay up to date
Nevertheless it wouldn’t be the worst thing to reassess product management and development priorities. Product tweaking and enhancements have been slim and seem rather uninspired. Who remembers anything else other than turning “favorites / stars” into “likes / hearts” and then making a big story about it? There should probably be more than that. In return, rumors about lifting the 140 character tweet limit and putting it up to 10,000 seems odd as well.
My wish is that there is something in between those cosmetic updates which change the way I express favor for tweets and on the other hand bloating the character size by more than 70 fold, the very core characteristic of the service. As I have pointed out, Twitter has some clear USP when compared to services that have overlapping features and use cases. But they need to get their sh… together and make sure it stays relevant and attractive. I am excited how the rumors substantiate regarding a possible introduction of an algorithmic compilation of Twitter’s newsfeed. This is a very controversial and emotional topic for many long-time users. But at least something is happening and the heated discussion shows how much lifeblood there still is for Twitter.
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