Declaring the end of things is a fun sport. I’ve dabbled in it myself. Generally I try to confine my obituaries to things that are actually ending, like the telegraph or Google Glass. But occasionally I get carried away and predict the demise of things that still have some life left. It must have been a similar burst of enthusiasm that moved Josh Topolsky to announce, in the New Yorker last Friday, “The End of Twitter.” His death notice in the nation’s most prestigious magazine capped an ignominious week for the company that began with the departure of four top executives.
The New Yorker is not the first to pronounce Twitter doomed. Its argument recalls that of the Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Meyer, who wrote “A Eulogy for Twitter” back in April 2014 (before it was cool). Both pieces start out by fondly recalling a halcyon past in which Twitter possessed certain virtues that it lacks today. Topolsky recalls the Twitter of yore as “raw,” “real,” yet streamlined; LaFrance and Meyer remembered it being “hectic,” “transformative,” and “fun.” Alas, the lament goes, it has lost its way.
Never mind how, exactly. Topolsky briefly waves his hands at user harassment (a real problem), unverified information (a feature, not a bug), and those pesky blue lines that upset everyone for a few minutes a couple years back (psh). LaFrance and Meyer had the honesty to admit that, to them, it just didn’t feel the same. The mechanisms are apparently elusive or irrelevant. But the upshot is clear: A service that was once “fundamental” is now, Topolsky writes, “so confused and undifferentiated in the market that it’s increasingly difficult to make a clear case for its existence.”
If feelings were all that Twitter’s doomsayers had to offer in support of their prophesies, the narrative of its impending demise would likely have come and gone, as it did with Facebook. In Twitter’s case, there are actual numbers that seem to support the narrative that it is failing to deliver on its promise. But those numbers don’t mean what Twitter’s critics think they mean. And conflating them with vague anecdotes about how the service feels is a category error that disserves everyone: readers, investors, and most of all the people who use and love Twitter as it is.
Twitter, you see, is not doomed. It is not even in decline. To the extent that it is suffering, it is suffering under the weight of misplaced expectations. And to the extent that it is at risk, the risk is that it will continue to try ever more desperately to fulfill those expectations—and in doing so lose what has always made it special. (Yes, it is still special.)
The metric by which Twitter is being judged a failure today is the same one that has haunted it since around the time it announced that it would go public in the fall of 2013: user growth. It had about 240 million monthly active users then, and AllThingsD reported that it was adding to that figure at a clip of about 4.5 million per month—a disappointing rate for a service that was widely presumed to be on the fast track to ubiquity. Rather than tick back up, that rate has only slowed further in the time since. In September, Twitter reported 307 million active users—just 5 million more than it had at the beginning of the year. Net growth in the United States, its home market, has stalled altogether.
That is a disappointing showing indeed for a company whose IPO was premised on the notion that it was the next Facebook: a social network that would become a regular habit for a majority of the online population. But to judge it a failure today is to implicitly accept that premise—long after it has become obvious that it was mistaken.
Actually, Topolsky makes the misleading comparison explicit and compounds it with some other comparisons that are almost as inapt. “Facebook has surpassed the company by orders of magnitude, but it’s hardly Twitter’s only foe,” he writes. (“Surpassed” is an odd verb choice for a company that has always been far larger than Twitter.) “Instagram, WhatsApp, and even WeChat all now have more individual users than Twitter does. Snapchat has almost caught Twitter, too.”
As I’ve explained in the past, Twitter is not like Facebook, because it is not really a social network. It is also, fairly obviously, not like Snapchat, WhatsApp, or WeChat, which are primarily messaging services. Nor is it quite like Instagram, which is about sharing photos. Twitter is, at its core, a public forum for information, conversation, and ideas. That is a fundamentally different proposition, one that is essential to specific segments of the populace, including celebrities, activists, corporate brands, and the media—and practically useless to the rest, except indirectly, as a conduit for information that they ultimately consume elsewhere.
It is this fundamental difference that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s predecessor, Dick Costolo, sought to stress and capitalize on. His attempts to convince investors and the public of its importance were in vain. But his efforts to capitalize on it were not. Even as user growth stalled, revenue surged, more than tripling from about $140 million in the quarter ending July 2013 to more than $500 million last July, when Costolo left the company.
Even so, investors perceived that this growth would eventually hit a ceiling unless the user base could be exponentially expanded. For a company’s growth to have a ceiling is not an inherently bad thing. Plenty of companies provide great value to their customers, investors, and society without any expectation that they’ll ever reach as many people as Facebook or even WeChat. But Silicon Valley abhors a ceiling, and Twitter has never quite been willing to admit that it might have one. The media, meanwhile, have relentlessly beaten Wall Street’s drum, pummeling Twitter each quarter for its failure to keep growing, without ever questioning the need for it to do so. And so the amiable Costolo had to go, and hard-charging Dorsey was brought back to try to reinvent the company he co-founded.
He’s certainly trying. Since taking over on an interim basis in July, Dorsey has overseen the launch of a Moments tab aimed at casual readers, embraced a Facebook-style like button, and laid the groundwork for the publication of full articles and blog posts (don’t call them longer tweets) directly in the Twitter feed. These features might help make the service a little more accessible, but they’re unlikely to significantly alter its fortunes or to radically expand its user base. That would require deeper changes to its core functionality, which would in turn risk alienating those who have loved it all along.
For Twitter’s investors to beat the drum for growth is natural. And perhaps Dorsey will find a way to deliver it. But for the media—and not just CNBC or Business Insider, but the New Yorker and the Atlantic—to uncritically adopt Wall Street’s obsession with growth is a shame. Twitter should be judged on what it does, not just how its stock performs.
To blame the changes to Twitter’s service for its failure to grow is to confuse cause and effect. This mistake leads Topolsky to a rather glaring contradiction. Twitter’s problem is not that its service is “confused and undifferentiated in the market.” It’s that its service is so well-defined and differentiated that it appeals to a specific group of power users, rather than to the least common denominator. If Twitter does begin to lose its way as a product—which, again, it has not so far—it will be the unfortunate result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, perpetrated by investors and the media alike. Wrongly viewed as a failure because it is not more like Facebook, Twitter risks becoming a failure by trying to become more like Facebook.
That could happen if, for instance, it actually abandoned the 140-character limit, as opposed to simply offering a workaround. It could happen if it abandoned the chronological timeline in favor of a fully algorithmic one. Most plausibly, it could happen if the company were to be sold for parts—a fate made more likely by the false narrative of its impending demise.
The media can’t control what investors want from Twitter, but we could certainly do a better job speaking up for the interests of the people who use it. And what we should be saying is: Twitter isn’t Facebook, and it never will be, and it doesn’t have to be. We should stop judging Twitter on its user growth and get back to judging it on its merits. There are some genuine problems with Twitter’s product, its epidemic of harassment among them. (My colleague David Auerbach has some interesting ideas for how it could address them.) But those aren’t what’s holding it back from being as big as Facebook. What’s holding Twitter back from becoming as big as Facebook is that it is fundamentally different from Facebook. Let’s hope it stays that way.