Saturday 6 February 2016

Twitter Doesn't Have to Die

If you're someone who sinks endless hours into Twitter, you couldn't have failed to spot #RIPTwitter trending overnight and for a good portion of the day. It has been suggested that the company wishes to introduce a fundamental change to the service.

As every Twitter user knows, the feed is constantly updated with most recent tweets first. The powers that be apparently want to do away with this function and introduce an algorithm into proceedings. This will look at your missives, the accounts you retweet, and the people you follow to filter your feed and deliver tweets it thinks you will find most relevant or useful. Coming hot on the heels of the company mulling over 10,000 character limit tweets, it's not unreasonable to conclude that Twitter is determined to kill what made Twitter Twitter.

Many have observed how Twitter is slowly transforming into Facebook. Last year, customisation of one's profile page was suddenly and arbitrarily fixed within certain limits so all looked the same. Like Facebook. The meta was shifted to the left side, like Facebook. Favourites became likes, as per ... you guessed it. In the grand scheme of things, these don't matter a great deal as they're marginal to the core micro-blogging experience. But what they do is signpost the direction of travel.

I'm happy to go with the wisdom of the crowd. Bigger tweets and the algorithmically-filtered feeds will kill the thing stone dead. Users do not need a robot buzzing away in the servers sorting their content, we can do that ourselves. If someone on my timeline consistently puts out boring rubbish I don't want to see, there's this handy function Twitter made available from the beginning. It's called 'unfollow'. For a bunch of techheads at the cutting edge of social media, what they do not understand about Twitter's appeal - as it is for all platforms - is as an experience the user curates themselves, and are happy to do so. Besides, the joy of Twitter is sometimes how random snippets of information can pop up in the feed. Every day, at least one slightly off-beam scrap is tweeted into my timeline that will make me think, or learn about something new. And from this randomness new relationships can be forged. The majority of people I interact with, for instance, are fruits of chance tweets here hitting my timeline at a particular point. I'm sure it's the same for the bulk of other users too. They start out following people they think might be interesting and/or they've heard of, and end up tracking hundreds of others on account of what they say. It's serendipitous.

It also blunts Twitter's utility as an aid for social change. It's easy to be hyperbolic about the role it played in the revolutions of the Arab Spring, but it proved its worth as a means of disseminating knowledge and news when the state had standard, centralised media under its thumb. Twitter could only play that role because of the way networks of protesters were able to connect and make unfiltered contact. With the algorithm working away, a barrier is thrown up preventing that immediacy from taking place. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that in any future uprising against tyranny the algorithm - accidentally on purpose, of course - directs users to pro-regime, state, and other establishment social media contributions as opposed to grassroots protesters. And that's before we start thinking about target advertising as a means of accruing revenues.

Ah yes, money. Lest we forget that Twitter is a business. In quarter three 2015, it posted $569m in revenue off 307m active monthly users. However, as you can see the years of breakneck growth are long behind it: the user base is topping out. And, as it happens, next week Twitter are due to post their Q4 earning and active user figures. Pundits are forecasting that this flattening trend will be confirmed. And so the pressure is on management to do something, anything. After all, one only need look over at Facebook's much larger active user base to see there is a big market for the taking. Hence the redesigns that make Twitter look slightly familiar to new users fresh from Facebook, and from this standpoint the algorithm can, looked at askance, make some sense.

Facebook and Twitter are fundamentally different beasts for different things. For most people, the former connects friends, acquaintances, and school friends, and is about having chats, sharing selfies, photos of the kids, pics of the car, and tea time commentary on the contents of one's dinner plate. Quite a few use it to interact with the wider world via groups and the like, but this is not the raison d'etre. It's used primarily to connect with the familiar. Twitter on the other hand is about moving into the world, of reaching out to the unknown and forging new connections and networks. It's ideal if one is a touch extroverted, has an axe to grind or, ahem, a blog to evangelise. For your casual punter uninterested in such things, Twitter can seem a bit pointless. Why would strangers want to see drunken tweets from your night out, or the Facebook-obligatory baby snaps? The solution to Twitter's woes, so management thinks, is to narrow the difference between the platforms. Delivering content up front without much effort on the new user's part will, they think, demonstrate its utility and hook them in.

As for the effect on existing users, who cares? In the logic of triangulation, there's nowhere else for them to go. Twitter is embedded in the infrastructure of 21st century life to a degree that economies of celebrity, the media, and politics have dependent relationships with it. For some people, especially those home bound or, for whatever reason, otherwise socially isolated Twitter is a lifeline and a life saver. Whatever happens, in the cynical reasoning of the spreadsheet and market share, there is nothing that can emerge to displace it. Except, perhaps, should China's Weibo ever go international.

It's just as well it's not going to happen after all, apparently. CEO Jack Dorsey has issued a non-denial denial. "We never planned to reorder timelines next week", he tweeted. In other words, it remains an option.

The problem with Twitter is it remains a difficult business to make money from. Promoted tweets and trends are all very well, but too many and it gets in the way. The value of the platform is tied up in the qualities of the interactions that pass across it, some of which are commercial transactions which, by the medium's nature, it cannot tap into. There is no facility for it to make money in the way eBay does by bringing buyers and sellers together. Its present revenues depends on volume, and if that slows the business model as presently constituted is in trouble. That isn't to say Twitter is doomed, but it does mean it has to accept monetisation that directly benefits the company will threaten its fundamentals. There is a solution to keeping Twitter going, but that might well demand moving away from a for-profit outfit to something else.


The Fulcrum said...

It should never have gone to IPO; then again, many similar businesses shouldn't either, because they're niche, not grow-forever propositions, but they do.

That said, Google tells me that Facebook shares have actually had a steady climb since 2013, presumably as the company makes money from all those people who unironically like Nickelback, Coldplay and The Big Bang Theory, and are completely absent on the Internet.

"It's ideal if one [...] has an axe to grind or, ahem, a blog to evangelise."

Pretty sure no-one stoops to that. How vulgar.

asquith said...

Over time, I've come to love the 140-charachter limit (if you want to talk for longer, post a link to your blog and get as many readers as you can) and I've just taken the first-come-first-served for granted in my seven years.

I've been around for years and I've got my people on Twitter, you among them. I don't want to go onto a new website whose way of doing things I won't understand. I don't like change. I don't want them faffing around with my websites :(