We’re living in precarious times. I’m not talking about the storm around fake news or the seemingly relentless doomsday tone of current news headlines. No, I’m talking about the unsettling, and very real, prospect of losing one of our most beloved social media platforms.
With its share price down and growth stalling, Twitter is in serious trouble.
The new status quo
The increasingly crammed nature of the news cycle in 2017 means Twitter’s downturn has somewhat fell under the radar of late. But, the truth is, it’s been struggling for a while now. Perhaps the biggest indicator yet of turbulent times for the social media giant was the scrapping of its short video app, Vine, in late 2016 which coincided with a 9% cut in its workforce.
Just last month it was announced that, despite a 4% increase in its active monthly user base, Twitter’s ad revenue declined in the final quarter of 2016 – the first time this figure has fallen since the company went public. Of course, Twitter executives will be hoping to turn things around over the coming months, with 2017 marking a make or break year for the now decade-old platform.
That’s right, Twitter was founded way back in 2006. It represents one of the few social networks to make it big and manage to stick around, avoiding descent into the social media abyss home to the likes of Bebo and MySpace. Remember those?
And yet, in recent years, Twitter’s appeal has diminished considerably. The veteran platform perhaps starting to show its age against the rise of imaged-based social media, such as Instagram and Snapchat. Indeed, the Twittersphere has been hit notably harder by the new status quo than longstanding competitors, Facebook and LinkedIn, which have largely retained growth in an increasingly saturated market.
But regardless of the reasons behind Twitter’s uphill struggle, here’s why we should all care about its ever more uncertain fate.
Stuck in the middle
Firstly, it’s worth looking at how Twitter stacks up to its social media counterparts, including long-term rivals Facebook and LinkedIn. Like Twitter, both sites have been kicking around for a while now.
The former remains the most popular social media site of them all, a personal platform where you can share memories and milestones with a largely familial network. The latter is, to an extent, its professional cousin. Facebook in a suit if you will. With job postings, profile ranks and professional endorsements, LinkedIn hails to other the extreme, very much putting the ‘networking’ back into the social network.
So where does that leave Twitter? Well, right where it should be… Somewhere in the middle. More informal than LinkedIn and more professional than Facebook, it can be used in both a private and commercial capacity – as users with multiple accounts will testify. Indeed, it was here that Twitter found its niche. Go back five years and the “SMS of the internet” was at its peak, able to coexist among its two major rivals since neither posed a particular threat to its own user base.
Then came the new kids on the social media block, Instagram and Snapchat.
Launched within 12 months of each other, these image-based platforms have enjoyed a stark rise in popularity over the last few years. Snapchat, in particular, seems to be flavour of the month at the moment. The introduction of its hugely popular ‘lens’ feature has helped strike a chord with a younger audience, with the vast majority of Snapchat users falling under the key 18-34 demographic. Such is the success of the photo messaging platform – which resisted a $3 billion Facebook takeover attempt in 2013 – that its shares opened at $24 and closed up 44% when parent company, SnapInc, went public on Friday.
Instagram, on the other hand, was snapped up by Facebook back in 2012 and so far it’s proved an equally wise move. With more than 500 million users worldwide, sharing 95 million photos every day, Instagram may be the real winner here. It’s latest feature Instagram stories – not to be confused with, the in the no way similar, ‘Snapchat stories’ – has been credited with slowing Snapchat’s growth surge in the final two quarters of last year.
Obviously, it’s difficult to compare these predominantly visual networks on a like-for-like basis with Twitter. But, the one thing that is clear is the rising popularity of such platforms has cut into its user base far more than the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn. And yet, as far I’m concerned, Twitter has a more important role than ever to play in this increasingly crammed market. I can’t quite put my finger on it but Twitter plugs the gaps of all the other mainstream social networks currently available.
News and views
Case in point, Twitter’s newsfeed. With its capability for live tweets and ‘trending now’ functionality, the platform makes for an invaluable news source. In fact, I can’t count the number of times I’ve uttered the phrase “I saw it earlier on Twitter” when asked about a breaking news story. While Facebook has its equivalent ‘trending’ section (which it totally didn’t steal from one of its biggest competitors) it doesn’t quite generate the same amount of – and I hate to use this word – ‘buzz’ that you routinely find on your Twitter timeline. As the recent introduction of its ‘reactions’ feature proves, Facebook is much more about how people respond to news than the stories themselves.
Funnily enough, Twitter is more of an opinion platform than any of its closest rivals, but the big difference here is that the story very much drives the conversation. In fact, Twitter (for better or worse) helped give rise to the whole civilian journalism trend in the first place. Rather than sharing how you feel about something with family and friends, on Twitter, you’re part of a much wider network – with looser ties between its users. Perhaps this is what makes it such a great generator of discussion and debate, an interactive hub of diverse views and opinions from all around the globe – the vast majority of which fall on the right side of the moral compass. That said, the persistence of trolls on Twitter, and the site’s somewhat perfunctory response to the problem, is one of the reasons it’s in such a mess.
With regards to the new image-based social networks, well they’ve never really been this type of platform have they? Don’t get me wrong, they’re fine for keeping up to date with what your friends got up to last night but – when a story like last weekend’s Oscars fiasco breaks – where do we go to offer our two cents worth? Snapchat it ain’t. They might say a picture paints a thousand words but, really, just how newsworthy is that snap of a superfood salad and blueberry smoothie your sister had for lunch?
When it comes to news and views, Twitter is still king.
This is largely down to its ability to inspire global trends and movements. In spite of its serious trolling problem, Twitter more than any other platform has an uncanny ability to bring people together – often restoring some much needed faith in humanity when we need it most. Think back to the recent terror attacks across Europe and the way a simple hashtag (#JeSuisCharlie, #porteouvert, #PrayforBerlin) was able to connect millions of users in a worldwide display of unity.
Of course, Twitter is the undisputed home of the hashtag, I don’t know about you but I always feel a bit wrong using it anywhere else. It’s part of what makes it such a powerful PR and marketing tool, along with its broad demographic appeal and 140 character limit which stops users from rambling on (unfortunately the same cannot be said for this blog). These short, digestible chunks of information make it well suited to live updates on anything from sporting events to election results.
But, more recently, ‘going live’ has taken on a new meaning all thanks to the rising popularity of live video, which allows users to connect with people and events, all over the world, in real time. Twitter hopped aboard the live streaming train early on with its acquisition of Periscope back in 2015. The app, which allows users to integrate real-time videos into their tweets, is an asset for the struggling site. Unsurprisingly then, it’s been announced that live streaming will be a key part of the platform’s strategy moving forwards and just last week Twitter signed a deal with ESL and Dreamhack in a bid to broadcast live e-sports. However, with rivals Instagram and Facebook muscling in on the live video trend last year, Twitter is facing increasing competition on this front too.
An uncertain future
Now, look. I don’t mean to be bleak but, like so many things at the moment, Twitter faces an uncertain future. Admittedly, I’ve always had a soft spot for the platform. It was the first social network I ever joined, unless you count MSN messenger which fell into that social media abyss I talked about a long time ago. But I’m not exaggerating when I tell you Twitter’s in a tight spot. You might think the hive of activity generated by Donald Trump alone would have given the platform a much needed resurgence, but I’m afraid not even POTUS can save Twitter as things stand.
By the time we realise just how much trouble Twitter’s really in – it might be too late.