When I joined Twitter in 2009, it was a thriving community. Together with Facebook, it was a rising star in social media. It was the place to be for real-time conversations about world events, news, sports, TV and movies. Twitter’s future was bright and promising.
Today, Twitter’s future is a lot more uncertain. While people still use it to follow celebrities, troll politicians and share Netflix spoilers, Twitter is but a shadow of the emerging tech star it once was.
The biggest sign of troubled times is the news of Twitter’s imminent sale. According to several sources, two tech giants—Salesforce and Microsoft—are in talks to buy the struggling social network. Another tech star, Alphabet's Google, and one media powerhouse, Disney, were also reportedly interested in acquiring the company before deciding not to make an offer.
Why Twitter and why now? For tech companies, Twitter’s enormous amount of user data is a big draw. Salesforce, for instance, could use Twitter’s data firehose to power projects in artificial intelligence. Disney is an unlikely buyer, but experts believe it’s interested because of Twitter’s live broadcast experience.
Whoever ends up buying Twitter faces a rough road ahead.
Reinvigorating a social media behemoth
Twitter is still a part of our cultural conversations, but the company’s financials and user growth look weak compared to contemporaries like Facebook and LinkedIn. In the second quarter of 2016, the company posted a revenue of $602 million—up 20 percent from the previous year, but missing Wall Street’s expectations of $607 million for the quarter.
The return of founder Jack Dorsey as CEO in 2015 has not turned things around significantly. In the second quarter of 2016, for instance, monthly active users was practically flat at three percent. A year after returning, Dorsey, unfortunately, has not been able to reinvigorate Twitter. The rise of Millennial- and Gen Z-friendly networks like Instagram and Snapchat isn’t helping Twitter’s turnaround efforts.
Reversing Twitter’s trajectory requires fixing some of the network’s enduring problems and pushing for a clearer vision of its true promise. Here are a few suggestions on what Twitter’s potential buyer should focus on.
Give Twitter a more concrete identity.
Is Twitter a social network or is it a news distribution platform? If you ask non-Twitter users, they’d probably tell you it’s the former. A heavy Twitter user like myself might say ‘both.’ But the company’s strategy recently shifted significantly to the latter. The Twitter app, for instance, was recategorized as a news app earlier this year. This election cycle, the company also doubled down on building its reputation as a news service as it livestreamed newsworthy events like the Republican and Democratic conventions as well as the first Presidential debate.
Twitter’s pivot resulted in a confusing identity. How Twitter defines itself shapes its business strategy and how people use the site. As a social network, Twitter needs to develop Snapchat-like features to encourage people to share more. As a news platform, Twitter needs to encourage conversations around news events and develop supporting advertising features.
Make it newbie-friendly.
When my friends and colleagues join Twitter, one question they typically ask me is, ‘what should I tweet about?’
New user abandonment is a real problem on Twitter, and the site’s high learning curve is to blame. It’s hard to see the initial value of Twitter because new users typically don’t understand the purpose of hashtags, or know who to follow and how to interact with other users. Being a new Twitter user is typically a lonely experience.
"When my friends and colleagues join Twitter, one question they typically ask me is, ‘what should I tweet about?’"
To retain new users and keep them coming back, the onboarding experience needs to improve significantly. While new features like Moments—a tool to curate tweets around certain events—and a better designed homepage makes it easier for new users to understand the site, the lack of user growth suggests that the company hasn’t done enough.
Current user experience projects aim to make Twitter’s design simpler and more engaging for newbies, but the company and its buyer will also need to consider its vocal, hardcore fans in the process.
Get rid of the trolls—and the bots.
Sadly, Twitter has become synonymous with cyber-bullying and hate speech. Trolls have forced celebrities like Leslie Jones and Lena Dunham to quit Twitter (although some of them returned), but regular folks aren’t immune to abuse and harassment on the site. Hate speech is an unfortunate part of the Twitter user experience—and that has to change.
Hate speech is an unfortunate part of the Twitter user experience.
Fixing Twitter’s trolling problem will be a key issue for whoever ends up buying it. One potential fix is to put procedures in place to confirm people’s identities. Accounts that spew out racist, sexist or anti-Semitic tweets often hide behind pseudonyms. If people can’t hide behind random aliases, they’re more likely to think twice about abusing another user.
Bots have also infiltrated Twitter in recent years. Bots—algorithms that retweet others, add users to Twitter lists or follow other accounts—make it more efficient to use the site. But they also diminish the user experience because they don’t contribute meaningful comments or replies to conversations that happen on the site.
Twitter needs to recreate a supportive, engaging environment where human-to-human conversations take place. Addressing trolling and the heavy use of bots will help Twitter build a richer, thriving community.
Launch more fun and interesting products.
In recent years, tech companies like Snapchat and Instagram have stolen the attention of young users, who gravitate to shiny, new networks. This year alone, Snapchat’s U.S. user base has grown 27 percent to 56.8 million—many of whom are between the ages of 12 to 34.
Beyond novelty, these emerging platforms offer fun, engaging ways to connect and share. Snapchat filters are ever-changing, bizarre and goofy, and that’s exactly why people love them. Instagram’s visual community—together with recent innovations like Boomerang and Instagram Stories—keep users interested and engaged.
To be fair, Twitter has recently introduced stickers and announced integration with Giphy, a site that hosts millions of gifs. But these product updates pale in comparison to innovations coming from other networks. To ignite growth among younger users, Twitter can’t afford to stop there.
A turning point for Twitter
Twitter is far from dead. As a long time user, I’m optimistic about the site’s future. Despite the dominance of Facebook and the impressive growth of Snapchat, no other network has been able to replicate Twitter’s efficiency in gathering real-time conversations about politics and pop culture. And as the frequent media coverage of Donald Trump’s tweets, Twitter is still a source of news fodder.
But as I outline here, the company has a long and growing list of challenges it needs to overcome in order to survive—and thrive. If the pundits are correct about Twitter’s sale, its buyer must bring a sharper vision for the company. Power users like myself are praying for—and tweeting about—it.