Twitter is a land of inside jokes. A persistent one over the last several months has been that users are witnessing the social network’s last days.
There is now a palpable anxiety about Twitter’s future, made worse by recent turns for the ten-year-old San Francisco company. Its stock price has been steadily trending downwards for months, sinking to all-time lows this week. #RIPTwitter trended globally over the weekend as users blanched at the latest unwanted change (timelines sorted using an algorithm instead of in chronological order). Then, the company’s quarterly earnings report on Feb. 10 revealed that Twitter’s user growth has stalled. It is actually losing users in the United States. The news sent shares plummeting further.
The conversation around Twitter now, among users, investors, and observers, is whether or not the service is doomed. Perhaps, at least as it is known today.
As a business, Twitter is still growing annual revenue quickly, but its dismal stock price makes it a ripe takeover target for a tech giant. To reverse its fortunes CEO Jack Dorsey has promised changes to make the social network more accessible to new users. During an earnings call, Dorsey said Twitter's mission was to provide a forum for real-time discourse on the Internet: “Live commentary, live conversations, and live connections." Twitter has 320 million users globally, many attracted to the site's unruly daily brawl, which has an outsize influence on world events even if many don't realize it. The difficulty is that Twitter, the business beholden to shareholders, must become an even bigger social network highly efficient at serving targeted ads. The aims of the company and of its users are not always aligned.
Twitter, it is becoming obvious, can't grow unless it changes much about how it operates. That's because the service is notoriously difficult to use, especially compared to competing platforms like Facebook and Instagram. First, finding relevant tweets is hard. Users have to hand-select a group of people they find interesting or insightful to follow, most of whom aren't likely to be real-world acquaintances. Some may never offer a morsel of information, like Beyonce, while others overwhelm with bizarre musings, like Cher. Finding someone who tweets at the right tempo isn't always evident. There are active communities organized by race, political leaning and profession, but they tend to operate by idiosyncratic rules that can be opaque to outsiders. Logging on for the first time is a little like arriving at Times Square on New Year's Eve and trying to make lasting friends.
Attracting an audience by tweeting is even harder. Pundits often deride some of Twitter’s interface quirks, like the @reply and the ambiguous heart button. (Its change from a star—for "favorite"—to a heart—for "like"—late last year sparked a short-lived outrage.) But it’s still easier to use than Snapchat and less sprawling in scope than Facebook. The real problem with being active on Twitter is that writing tweets too often feels like yelling into a massive void and not even hearing an echo. A 2013 study found that the median user had just 61 followers. Because the stream of tweets on the site can move so fast, there’s no guarantee all of a person’s followers will see a given tweet, let alone engage with it. As a result, the site takes on a certain self-aware banality as users await the next big event, like an awards show or a celebrity meltdown.
Facebook uses algorithms to make sure users' closest friends see their posts: You feel loved (or at least seen) when a dozen people like your self-deprecating joke or vacation photo. Twitter, with its neutral feed sputtering out chronological tweets, feels cold by comparison. And yet Twitter users are able to wield incredible influence in aggregate.
That power cuts two ways. #BlackLivesMatter began as a Twitter hashtag and has evolved into a social justice movement that presidential candidates must address. At the same time, women are regularly subjected to group attacks from strangers that can include death threats. #GamerGate was just one example. Celebrities and regular individuals alike are ridiculed daily for saying things that others deem racist, sexist or generally stupid. Twitter is a company, and Twitter is a social network, but Twitter is also regularly portrayed a collective mob that “gets outraged,” “is furious,” and “lashes out." Another strand of dark Twitter humor portends that all are doomed to be devoured by this mass eventually.
For the average Internet user used to logging onto Facebook or Instagram for momentary escape, Twitter is simply not worth the trouble. Even the site’s own users at times seem to loathe it, which may explain why so many act convinced, even if jokingly, that the whole enterprise is destined to collapse in on itself.
What would happen then? If Twitter disappeared tomorrow, much of its functionality could be recreated elsewhere. Facebook is already a bigger platform for following live events and is trying to build tools to match its users’ interests specific areas, such as sports or current events. Citizen journalism can proliferate on live-streaming apps like Periscope (owned by Twitter) or blogging platforms like Medium (launched by a Twitter co-founder). Media outlets, celebrities, and politicians might find other megaphones on other social platforms.
But there is something unpredictable and unruly about Twitter that seems impossible to recreate. The social network is a pressure valve where marginalized people can congregate until their frustration explodes into the streets; where Donald Trump can blast his political messages to his fans and his foes; where anyone from an NBA owner to an unknown PR flack can be shamed into losing their jobs. It's unclear whether a Twitter that offered computer-curated feeds and 10,000-character posts (a third change users have railed against) could retain that power.
Twitter's chief virtue is the chaotic nature of its conversation, increasingly rare in a world driven by algorithms tuned to generate revenue. As such, it shows the best and worst of humanity, as it happens. As a party that’s too raucous for some, too alienating for others, and too much fun for millions, Twitter must either accept that it may never have a billion users like Facebook, or risk becoming something devotees don't recognize.