Twitter started as a social version of text messaging. The limit on a text message is 160, which Twitter truncated to 140 to account for the sender’s name. Early reviews considered the platform to be “addictive and at the same time annoying”; a less charitable review went as far as saying “that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of”.
The birth of Twitter in 2006 made it the right platform at the right time. Every mobile phone effectively served as a broadcasting platform. The iPhone provided millions on-the-go Internet access, and allowed tweets be sent for free. These haiku-length packages of information could be made to fit nicely into narrow mobile phone data streams, providing a real-time flow of information.
Everybody wants to be heard. Writing a full blog takes time. What’s the solution? Tweet about it. Twitter democratized blogging by giving millions of people voices they never knew they had. No additional time or effort had to be spent on building an audience. Twitter became synonymous with microblogging, so much so that the latter term is hardly used anywhere outside of China.
The ease of use and speed of Twitter soon gave rise to the term ‘Twitter Revolution’. Social networking websites allowed public information to be spread widely and instantaneously, an invaluable resource for modern-day activists. Twitter’s 140-character toppling of dictators in the Arab Spring made it a target for authoritative governments, most recently in Turkey.
By the time of Twitter’s IPO in 2013, it had over 200 million monthly active users and 500 million tweets per day. Twitter raised close to $2 billion without ever having turned a single dollar of profit. Twitter’s trump card was mobile user engagement, and with this the company crafted native ads. These ads blended seamlessly into the user’s feed, while mining through user data allowed better targeting and more importantly, better monetization.
Google has gone on a robotics and artificial intelligence shopping spree, Facebook developed software that recognizes faces better than humans. Twitter, however, has suffered declining growth year-on-year since 2011, and these developments may soon end the death of Twitter:
1. Less active users
Twitter is a victim of its own success. The reach that the platform has have in turn attracted more spam, more hate speech, and more unverified content. It’s only a matter of time before the more prominent Tweeters leave.
Some already have. Ezra Klein dishearteningly wrote how Twitter’s signal-to-noise ratio was too low: up to 90% of a typical Twitter feed is a waste of time. He recommends consumption in moderation. His feed, however, suggests he’s largely disengaged from the service.
It appears Twitter is now mainly being used for self-promotion. It is no longer a venue where ideas are thrown about, where replies would be unpredictable, where to hang out just because it’s fun. There is more professional media, more scheduled broadcasts, more groupthink.
2. Lack of credibility
There are tweets that are banal, and there are tweets that are outright lies. Fake information and pictures proliferate the platform, especially after a natural disaster. For example, Hurricane Sandy depicted Manhattan as a modern-day Atlantis, and the Statue of Liberty being felled by a tsunami.
There are startups that try to address this problem. Tweetcred appends a ‘credibility ranking’ by reviewing inputs such as tweet length, if a URL was included, and the number of followers of the tweet source. This may help journalists in concentrating on credible sources, or traders in assessing market impact of a news event.
Irrespective, Twitter at heart is a social platform. Fake pictures went viral because they were the most incredible, not the most credible. The fact that retweeting involves tapping a single button simply adds fuel to the flame.
How Twitter addresses these dualities, treading the fine line in serving both the serious user and the casual one, will make or break the platform. The company needs to ensure how a feature that has a positive impact for one group doesn’t translate into something negative for the other. That appears to be the case right now, and given how quickly things move in the information age, it may already be too late.
Image credit: Shawn Campbell