Slowing in growth, Twitter in trouble

Slowing in growth, Twitter in trouble

The network has always been too strange and too difficult for new users to get the hang of

Slowing in growth, Twitter in trouble
Twitter is the world’s most important social network. That might sound like the ravings of an addict, but look at the headlines in every morning’s newspaper and the obsessions of every evening’s cable news broadcast. Just about anything you encounter in the news media these days has some foot in the controversies and conversations occurring on the 140-character network.

Yet for all its influence, Twitter, as a company, is in trouble. Big trouble. The network has always been too strange and too difficult for new users to get the hang of, and its growth has been slowing for a while.

Now, according to an earnings report released Wednesday, user growth has ground to a halt. Tech investors have not been in a forgiving mood lately for any company, and Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and recently reinstated chief executive, is unlikely to enjoy much grace.

So what’s to be done? It’s time for Twitter to consider something radical. More than two years ago, the company floated its shares on the New York Stock Exchange. On its first day of trading, investors valued Twitter at nearly $32 billion, a price that established a certain set of expectations that Twitter would keep altering its service to attract mainstream users and that its ad business would continue to grow at a breakneck pace.

Wall Street has only one template of success for an Internet company: Google and, later, Facebook. By filing for an initial public offering, Twitter was telling the world that it was part of the same club — that there was no upper bound to its business aims and that it would try to build a money machine that matched the size and importance of its service.

But what if the best path for Twitter, as a service, is for Twitter the company to abandon that dream? What if becoming a $25 billion, $50 billion or $100 billion world-swallowing Internet giant just isn’t in the cards for a niche service like Twitter?

Perhaps there’s more promise in a future as an independent but private company; as a small and sustainable division of some larger tech or media conglomerate; or even as a venture that operates more like a non-profit foundation.

Even if Twitter intends to remain a public corporation — because there does not seem to be much appetite, nor a very obvious mechanism, for investors to take it private — it’s time for Dorsey to reset expectations for what his company can become. Twitter should think of itself and portray itself to investors as more of a public utility than as a business that never stops growing, and that could ever hope to approach the market value of Facebook.

“Maybe Twitter is not meant to be the most popular band in the world,” said Anil Dash, a longtime user of Twitter and the chief executive of ThinkUp, a startup that intends to improve how people use social networks. “May be Twitter could find equilibrium as a company with an enterprise value of merely $5 billion” (At the moment, the market values Twitter at about $10 billion).

This does not mean that Twitter should abandon making money. Twitter can still run a fine business that generates enough to maintain and improve the reach of the service. But every Internet company doesn’t have to be the biggest, boldest, always-growing entity we are conditioned to expect.

Instead of aiming for something like Facebook, Twitter could mould itself on some other template for success. It could become a venture like Wikipedia, run by a non-profit that depends on donations, or a business like The New York Times Co, a publicly traded enterprise controlled by a family that has a preference for journalistic ambition.

In other words, Twitter should make clear that there are limits to the scope of its business ambitions and that it is guided by a philosophical bias for the health of the service over an ambition to grow at any cost.

There’s a simple reason for Dorsey to consider some other path: Implausible expectations are a setup for a bleak future. After losing its dominance as a search engine, Yahoo has faced more than a decade of struggle mainly because it has tried too long to become the one-stop portal that it isn’t.

In that effort it has squandered talent and money and run through more chief executives than you’d find at a Brooks Brothers sale. If, instead of pursuing the moon, Yahoo had vastly lowered its ambitions and planned to do one or two things really well, it could have found a sustainable path forward. Clarifying Twitter’s mission would be painful for the people who work at the company. There could be more layoffs and a plummeting of the equity they hold in the company if it were to go private. It would also be painful for investors who bought in to the company expecting it to be the next big thing.

But limiting Twitter’s scope would almost certainly be better for the service. Twitter needs to improve its product: It should have better ways of addressing abuse and harassment, and it should be easier for users to find tweets about topics that interest them. But it isn’t clear that the solutions to these problems are found in growth.

Problems of harassment

Dash pointed out that making Twitter easier for new people to join could in fact worsen the problems of harassment. “The discussion is always about reducing friction to joining,” he said. “But one of the things that might drive better behaviour might be to increase friction — to make it harder to sign up. But nobody’s having that discussion.”

Twitter, as it is right now, is mostly pretty good for lots and lots of people. Facebook has five times as many users, Instagram is as luxurious as a European vacation, and Snapchat is too cool for school. But because Twitter is an accessible, real-time network that has become the nerve centre of the world’s journalists, politicians, activists and agitants, it has, for better or worse, demonstrated an unrivalled capacity to influence real things in the real world.

Consider the Arab Spring, #blacklivesmatter or “Make America Great Again.” “Twitter has created space for the amplification of the voice of marginalised people in ways that we have not seen before,” said DeRay McKesson, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. “It has redefined our understanding of the public sphere to be more inclusive and more accessible and to have substantive impact on real-world events.”

But even beyond these movements, look at all those hashtags littering every Super Bowl ad. Or more simply, look at the thrum of minute-by-minute Twitter commentary that now shapes how any news event or TV show is received. If people don’t tweet it, did it even happen?

Of course, Twitter could be better. But it does not need a wholesale overhaul just for the sake of fuelling growth. Twitter maybe hasn’t evolved the product to the point that Wall Street analysts might like, but the utility that Twitter has for providing real-time news is real, and it hasn’t really been disrupted by anyone else,” said Mike Jones, the chief executive of a startup incubator named Science Media.