SoLoMo Series, Part IV: Twitter

Welcome back to the SoLoMo series, comrades. I’d pause for pleasantries, but there’s way too much for us to cover – so let’s just say this formerly three-part ordeal is now a however-long-I-can-keep-ranting kind of thing. Cool? Cool.

 

In parts I, II, & III, we covered the usual suspects of search through the lens of what they’ve done, what they might plan on doing, and most importantly, where they fall within the realms of social, local, and mobile. We moved between comparing Alphabet (or Google, or whatever it wants to call itself now) to the Umbrella Corporation, to framing Facebook as a zombie, to making cheap jokes about LinkedIn’s bland professionalism.

 

Now, don’t get me wrong – it was a great time. It’s just that the sample size was too small.

 

So with that out of the way, lets move on to our next profile. This particular platform is on par with Facebook in terms of how significantly it’s changed our social dynamics – except that instead of toying with the concept of friendship, it has deconstructed conversation.

 

In doing so, it has fundamentally uprooted how we interact. No longer do things follow the established communicative chain of being seen, processed, criticized, and interpreted. We’re now all equipped to scream into the nether with whatever fleeting thoughts happen to pass by, often at a moment’s notice. Sometimes these missives fall flat, and sometimes they bounce around like a brick on a trampoline.

 

Now that I think of it, those tend to fall flat too. I might be running out of similes.

 

Anyway, this platform is a form of quicksand for brands that’d like to think they should be a part of everyday conversation. This thing is a media enterprise that everyone seems to acknowledge, but nobody really wants to have proprietorship over.

 

That’s right – let’s talk about Twitter!twitter logo

 

2016 in Review: Wait, what just happened?

 

“Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, own businesses, have real areas of expertise…Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate. But he’s got that megaphone.”

 

-George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone, 2007

 

In June 2006, Twitter launched to near-immediate popularity. A little over a year later, in September 2007, Saunders laid out this thought experiment in the opener to his brilliant essay collection.

“What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to. It’s only polite. And soon…the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing — but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they…If he weaves into his arguments the assumption that the west side of the room is preferable to the east, a slow westward drift will begin.

 

Saunders is nothing if not prescient. There’s plenty to analyze here, of which most has already has been attempted, especially when it comes relating this scenario to our recent disaster of an election. I’m going to try and step around this – I’d rather discuss Bolivian tree frog mating rituals before talking a word about politics – so we’ll move on to the next snippet, which strikes me as the most intriguing part of his opener.

“We consider speech to be the result of thought (we have a thought, then select a sentence with which to express it), but thought also results from speech (as we grope, in words, toward meaning, we discover what we think). This yammering guy has, by forcibly putting his restricted languages into the heads of the guests, affected the quality and coloration of the thoughts going on in there. He has, in effect, put an intelligence-ceiling on the party.”

 

I love this dynamic between thought and speech. The first half of the statement is common perception – we think; we speak. It’s the second half that’s less obvious. Isn’t the backwards path, from speech to thought, a certain type of therapy? We feel a certain way, and want to understand more about it, but must talk around the concept before it’s clear. In doing so, we better understand the situation and how we’ve personally processed it in order to form our own opinions.

 

The therapy, in this broad sense, isn’t the sit-with-a-shrink-on-the-couch type. It’s a looser form of exercise that we go through every day. If the place we use for this, like perhaps an online microblogging platform, is muddled with incoherent garbage, then it’s going to make our respective conclusions much more difficult to reach.

 

How does one combat that? That’s been one of Twitter’s main overarching issues: Open conversation and the concept of free speech online are honorable in theory, but can be uncomfortable, maybe even counterproductive, in practice.

 

Wrestling with that conundrum is at the core of where Twitter finds itself today. One of its most notable headline themes this past year involved the proliferation of hate speech. That’s certainly going to give pause to attracting new users. So it’s no surprise when ripple effects start to take place – user growth dries up, ad revenue drops, and then the vultures come out.

 

Social: The Two Big Blue Problems

 

For all the rivalry that’s drummed up between Twitter and its big blue counterpart, the two have a lot in common. Particularly, how their cynics in the media love nothing more than dancing on their early graves. In 2016, the narratives used by these proselytizers went hand-in-hand together, bound by the same theme: Misinformation.

 

We just touched on Twitter’s nastiness issue. If you had the misfortune of following the recent election, I shouldn’t have to mention it’s kind of a problem. What strikes me as odd is the collective hand wringing about how we arrived here.

 

Wait – you mean to tell me that by giving everyone a platform to speak freely, they reverted to spewing vile at one another? The grand surprise would have been if we arrived at anywhere BUT here.

 

Facebook’s ailment, also starring a role in our farcical election, wasn’t one of harassment but rather a blatant disregard for fact. The ease with which false headlines found their way from fringe message boards to our news feeds was unnerving. There was so much septic propaganda circulating around that it’s pointless to even bother recounting. What’s surprising, again, wasn’t the result (People? Dishonest? Oh my!) but rather the reaction.

 

Facebook was chastised for its inability to effectively police the proliferation of trash clickbait. Fair enough. Every bar should have a bouncer, I suppose. Yet by the same token, an embarrassing Gizmodo article detailing the exploits of a loosely regulated “news curation” team hinted at the possibility Zuck’s left-leaning employees suppressed seemingly legitimate right-oriented news. This essentially killed any idea of Facebook as a fair arbiter – regardless of who your dog was in the fight. At least both sides could eventually agree on something, right?

 

Local: A Modest Proposal

 

So, Twitter has become a bastion of harassment. While it’s unfortunate this once-promising platform has become a poorly moderated echo chamber, I think we can call the fight. The battle’s been lost. Call if what you will – lack of institutional control, dystopian ideals of free speech, or just delusions of what is the basic human condition – Twitter’s inability to keep this devolution from happening has begun its downfall. And its insistence that this isn’t the problem will only expedite the process.

 

We’ll start with the cold, bleak numbers:

  • Monthly active user (MAU) growth, which is essentially the life force for publicly traded social media enterprises, has stopped – the user base increased by just 1% quarter-over-quarter in Q2 of 2016.
  • eMarketer projects that Twitter’s share of social media usage will continue to decline through 2020, with the largest impact being the 12-17 age range, which will be “virtually stagnant.”

In the words of Recode, “Twitter’s ad [revenue] growth has slowed over the past few years. It’s not a pretty chart.”

twitter growth

There’s an old adage out there, something about the difference between thriving and surviving, and as much as I hate to be the one spouting platitudes, it seems relevant here.

 

As Umair Haque over at Harvard Business Review went on to more eloquently explain last year:

“Twitter and its analysts appear to believe that the slump is due to competition — and so it’s adding new features, buttons, and functions, as fast as it can. But none of these have captured users’ imaginations, much less their interest. Instead, they’ve turned what was an elegant platform into a flashing Las Vegas of GIFs and #trending #spam. The downward spiral continues.

I think the answer’s hidden in plain sight. In case you don’t use Twitter, the unfortunate fact is that today, it’s less like a town square and something more like a mosh pit. Not just freewheeling, irreverent, and rambunctious, but plagued by harassment, abuse, bullying, intimidation, threats — a ceaseless flickering hum of low-level emotional violence.

It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots of a rise in abuse on Twitter — both its quantity and savagery — and a startling decline in engagement.”

 

This is probably the best take I’ve encountered when it comes to Twitter’s problems, but the thing about this type of opining is that it’s rarely presented with any mention of a remedy. So, let’s take a stab at an option that I’m confident would allow Twitter to survive, albeit with significant changes.

 

Mobile: Embracing (customer, not user) Retention

 

Late last year, rumors swirled whether somebody – anyone, really – would acquire Twitter. This was entertaining not because of the cast of characters involved, but rather the speculation on how any of them would integrate Twitter in a way that makes sense.

 

Would Disney look for a way to combine Twitter’s real-time conversation hub with the programming of ABC & ESPN? Nah, there’s too many trolls.

 

Would Microsoft double down on its LinkedIn investment to meld Twitter into the growing suite of social-business offerings? We’re inching closer to feasibility with this one, but still no dice.

 

Would Google use Twitter’s more popular platform to paper over the embarrassing failure of Google+? No, but in January 2017, it did pick through the bin of Twitter’s useful developer tools.

 

The most viable acquisition theory came from none other than CNBC’s Jim Cramer with regard to why Salesforce might be able to make this work:

It could be, shy of Facebook, the best way to get in touch with and learn from and teach customers about your product and what it can mean for them in a totally positive and intelligent way.”

 

I’ll run with Jimbo here for a moment. Twitter has built out its user base of 325 million or so. If it’s faltering-at-best as a conversation hub, and simply not growing in terms of new people using it, where’s the value to a corporate giant like Salesforce?

 

Simple: Twitter has the potential to be an unrivaled customer service tool. In many ways, it’s already doing plenty of things right.

 

Twitter began pushing this narrative with a 2015 internal study focused on the airline industry. In examining over 600,000+ “questions, complains, and comments” sent to airlines over a six month period, it determined that those customers were later willing to spend an average of $8.96 on future purchases so long as their response came within the median time of 22 minutes.

 

The study continued through 2016, and was expanded to include national pizza chains and telco companies (presumably also high volume complaint recipients). The numbers held up – customers would spend up to 20% and 10% more, respectively, per transaction so long as a response was sent within a reasonable window.

 

Like any internally sourced back patting, it’s key to not put too much stock in the cheeriness of these claims. The research does seem to be responsibility conducted, though – leading to my theory: Unlike Facebook, whose viability to the average business is in acquiring new customers, Twitter’s usefulness is in customer retention.

 

Owning this realization, as a matter of identity, would allow Twitter to stop attempting to be something to everyone. Perhaps you beef up the controls for banning abusive behavior, giving some semblance of comfort to your dwindling user base.

 

Maybe you pull some of the resources from expensive video product upgrades (which, let’s be honest, you’ve already screwed up once) and look into how you can foster something less sexy like reputation management for businesses that happen to be non-advertisers. Who knows, maybe the goodwill could make those awfully expensive ads more attractive someday.

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