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What's really wrong with Twitter?

By Koh Wanzi - 5 Jan 2016

What's really wrong with Twitter?

Twitter is struggling to keep up with its rivals.

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

Moments was Twitter's attempt to stay relevant and appeal to new users. (Image Source: Twitter)

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 not-so-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

A visualization of tweet activity in the US by Twitter data scientists on New Year's Eve. (Image Source: Twitter)

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 Twitter feed is a literal stream of consciousness, and tweets can give surprising insights into ongoing events like the 2010 World Cup. This picture shows the amount of conversation going on about each country, as measured by the use of their hashflag. (Image Source: Twitter)

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.

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