(This post was originally on the Voce blog)
Twitter announced its quarterly earnings and other updates yesterday. In short, monthly active users are up (though they seem to be using some creative math to make that case, which led to the inevitable investor discomfort) and revenue grew while losses shrunk. Sounds like good news, no?
Of course not,because this is Twitter. The investor call yesterday has led to a number of stories that seem to appear in the wake of each such call such as “people don’t get Twitter” and over-analysis of comments by interim CEO Jack Dorsey (himself the subject of plenty of hot takes) about how Twitter continues to question the reverse-chronological timeline.
Perhaps Twitter was easier to understand back in 2007 or 2008, before Facebook became the juggernaut it is now and when we were all still pretty entranced by personal blogging, which Twitter closely resembled, mostly because both use the reverse chronology as their core feature. So a whole group of people who were committed to their blogs jumped into Twitter and said “Oh yeah, I totally get this.”
Now though that group of users is at least two or three generations (in terms of internet users) in the past and the current group of young people (I refuse to use the term “millennials”) has their own set of preferred apps and communications tools. In some cases – Snapchat and the like – those completely do away with profiles, timelines and such conceits in favor of focusing exclusively on what’s happening RIGHT NOW. But in other cases – particularly Instagram – the same model Twitter uses is in place with people needing to set up accounts and profiles and the feed of updates displaying in reverse chronological format, with new photos right there at the top and no algorithm deciding what is or isn’t relevant, at least not yet.
So maybe it’s not that the format in which updates are displayed is the major sticking point. Maybe it’s just that Twitter, as I’ve long maintained, will never be a mass audience product.
It’s telling that Twitter’s active user count shot up like it did as a result of adding people who receive updates via SMS and don’t visit the site, use an app or heavily engage with other people’s updates. They are part of what I suspect is a large contingent of users who enjoy getting updates but don’t see the value in engaging or doing much publishing of their own. They want to use Twitter as a news service, essentially, and not as an engagement and conversation platform. Or they just want to lean back with Twitter while watching The Bachlorette and see everyone’s updates but not participate themselves.
And maybe that needs to be OK. There is only one big reason why that wouldn’t be something Twitter – and the endless array of analysts covering its every move – wouldn’t think these are still valuable users and that’s advertising. By going public years ago and needing for its every move to be one that increases revenue, Twitter is no longer the “use it as you see fit, that’s cool” place it was in its early days. Now if you’re not engaging and posting actively you are a missed opportunity.
I’m a big fan of a messy Twitter. I like the unfiltered stream and find those who don’t are the same one who, years ago, said they were ditching RSS feeds because they got all their news on Twitter, thereby showing they failed to understand either. I get that doesn’t work for everyone, which is why I continue to believe if the company *were* to introduce tools to better manage the feed (Lists already exist, but it’s not something most people use) they need to be opt-in.
Twitter was easier to explain – and for people to understand – when “microblog” would suffice. Now, though they need to face a world where it’s not necessarily the difficulty to define or understand that is keeping people away but the fact that the world of communication has simply evolved past what it offers, while a core group of committed user keeps it alive. In other words, it’s Twitter’s choice whether to change core functionality to adopt features that might appeal to a group that would never use it regardless or focus on maintaining a tool whose current features continue to appeal to a smaller but devoted audience.