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Social media and society

Twitter is not dead, it just smells funny

For the past few months it feels like Twitter has been hammered with story after story about its impending demise. Perhaps this is simply a function of its listing on the New York Stock Exchange and the initial hype and subsequent public scrutiny which comes with that move. But even compared to fellow traveller Facebook, which has undergone a similar process, Twitter seems to suffer such stories much more frequently.

But the reasons for such doom and gloom about the future of Twitter are ultimately difficult to pin down, and to my mind have much to do with a confusion between the speed and acceleration. For example, a recent Reuters story states that

Twitter Inc’s slowing user growth has revived concerns about the microblogging service’s prospects of one day matching Facebook Inc’s 1.2 billion users, prompting at least 16 analysts to cut their target price on the stock.

Let’s note two key things from this: first, it’s utterly simplistic to compare Twitter and Facebook, and to expect the one to match the userbase of the other. Twitter is mainly built around short-message, real-time, weak-tie network exchanges, while Facebook’s strengths lie in rich-content, asynchronous, strong-tie connections. Users will make up their own minds about what use they have for either of them, and it may well be that a majority of people will consider Twitter to be the more niche service. The platform needs to be judged on its own merits, not on Facebook’s.

Second, what we see here is analysts worrying about Twitter’s prospects not because it has stopped to grow its userbase, but because the acceleration of that growth failed to live up to their own expectations – expectations which were likely based on little more than stock market hype in the first place. There’s a longer discussion to be had here about the disconnect between contemporary stock market expectations and observable reality, but for now let’s just note that the future trajectory of social media platforms is inherently difficult to predict because we have no solid historical precedents to base such predictions on – social media is a genuinely new industry, and user activity patterns are dependent on a range of variables that are yet to be fully understood.

So, on the evidence to date, Twitter is pronounced by so many commentators to be in trouble even though it has continued to grow steadily in its major existing markets, and rapidly in emerging markets like India and Indonesia – its major offence appears to be simply that such growth isn’t exponential any more, as if exponential growth was ever a possibility beyond the early start-up phase.

This is not a platform that is dead, or even dying. In Australia, it’s evident that Twitter is in rude health: estimates for the total number of existing accounts range between 2.8 million (based on research conducted by the QUT Social Media Research Group, which I’ll cover here in a future post) and 4 million (according to Twitter’s own numbers, which should be taken with a good pinch of salt), and a Business Spectator article published today predicts that growth to continue steadily if slowly.

Indeed, from last year’s federal election through SBS’s Eurovision broadcast to tonight’s State of Origin, we’ve seen plenty of evidence that Australian users aren’t just on Twitter, but use it at substantial volume to engage with the topics and events that matter to them. This use of Twitter for public communication shows no signs of slowing down.

If growth of the Twitter userbase in Australia is slow, then, this is likely to be simply because those who want to be on Twitter in this country already are. Facebook has experienced a similar plateauing, if at the considerably higher level of around 13 million Australian accounts, and again this points to the different purposes and affordances of the two platforms.

Conversely, how intelligently Twitter reacts to this plateauing may well determine the platform’s future fate. Business Spectator reports CEO Dick Costolo’s statement “that up until now, Twitter has relied on organic user growth to buoy its service. Its strategy now will be to alter its service and actively seek user’s sign-ups.” Such statements will send a chill up the spines of those who have followed Facebook’s trials and errors as it has attempted to further broaden its appeal over recent years.

Twitter – and Twitter Australia – has done a number of things right so far: it has actively reached out to various commercial partners (broadcasters, sporting codes, etc.) to extend and improve their use of Twitter for marketing and audience engagement. The A-League’s use of Twitter to engage with fans in the absence of wall-to-wall mainstream media coverage has been a clear success story, for example.

But at the same time, there is also a clear danger that in its attempts to attract a broader userbase Twitter will succumb to the temptation to be more like Facebook (much as Facebook, with its introduction of hashtags and other Twitter-style features, has futilely pushed in the opposite direction). Some technology commentators have even predicted the abolition of Twitter’s most defining features: @replies, retweets, and the 140-character limit for tweets.

In implementing such changes, Twitter runs the risk of alienating the very core of its userbase: those users who use Twitter precisely because its light-weight, open structure is distinctly different from Facebook’s heavy-handedly designed, gated community. Twitter users will understand that the company needs to raise the revenue to maintain the platform as a free service, but if its attempts to do so undermine the existing Twitter experience, the company will have done more harm than good.

Already, short-sighted measures to monetise its user activity data by limiting free access and privileging a handful of commercial data resellers have severely alienated a previously flourishing community of start-up and non-profit developers and researchers who had hitherto served as Twitter’s most vocal friends and advocates. If everyday Twitter users were to be confronted with a disruptive intervention on the scale of Facebook’s personalised advertising service Beacon, they too might rethink their loyalty to the platform.

So (and with apologies to Frank Zappa), it should be clear that Twitter not dead, it justs smells funny on the occasional bad day. By any indication, its existing userbase continues to flourish. Instead, it is the company’s dogged pursuit of user growth for growth’s sake which should concern the analysts.

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