Twitter has serious problems. It is rife with harassment. Its management has been in a protracted state of upheaval. For a large and still relatively young tech company with plenty of cash, its core product has evolved surprisingly little, and in mostly superficial ways. No wonder it has struggled over the past two years to grow much beyond a core audience of roughly 300 million users worldwide, much to the chagrin of deluded investors who for some reason keep expecting Twitter to rival Facebook. And now its revenue is flattening, too.
For all of these reasons, it’s understandable that investors are antsy for a change. Recent weeks have brought renewed speculation that the company will be acquired, thanks in part to co-founder and board member Ev Williams’ Aug. 30 comment to Bloomberg that the company would “consider the right options.” On Sept. 14, the tech site Recode dutifully evaluated a broad cast of potential buyers. A Sept. 23 CNBC report named Google and Salesforce as possible suitors. And on Monday, Bloomberg reported that Disney is eyeing a Twitter bid as well.
Rumors of a Disney/Twitter tie-up prompted the predictable jokes and memes, along with some earnest attempts to explain why such deal would make sense, most of which involve the use of the word live as a noun.
Disney, it has been pointed out, owns ESPN and recently acquired a stake in BAMTech, the streaming video platform that spun off last year from MLB Advanced Media. When Twitter began streaming some NFL games earlier this year, it called on BAMTech to make sure things went smoothly.
All of which adds up to a persuasive case that Disney and Twitter have … some things in common. Less clear is how that justifies Disney spending more than $20 billion on a company that produces infinite PR headaches and—at the moment—zero profit. It takes a lot of hand-waving to get from “They both live-stream sports!” to “Disney should own Twitter.” A Yahoo Finance columnist took a stab at explaining the potential synergy last week, and this was the best he could do:
Disney needs to take greater steps to get younger audiences hooked on ESPN. It’s obvious that traditional television won’t be the best avenue for that. Instead, social, shareable content is key. ESPN highlight clips and short videos are all over Twitter already, but so are clips from the pro leagues’ official accounts, and from other sports news sites. If Disney owned Twitter, it could flood the stream with ESPN media.
Disney wants ESPN to be the de facto place where people experience sports (but it has lost that mantle somewhat in recent years, due to cord-cutting) and Twitter wants to be the same thing; together, both are stronger.
If I’ve got this right, the argument is that it would be worth $20 billion to Disney to turn Twitter into a giant promotional vehicle for ESPN. Oh, and Twitter would be better off in this capacity than in its current role as a de facto global town square. Yeah: no.
Arguments that Salesforce should buy Twitter aren’t much more persuasive. Wired noted that Twitter is a place where people sometimes interact with brands, and also that it has data that could be mined for “AI-driven applications.” True, no doubt. But it would take a lot more A.I. expertise than Salesforce’s to turn Twitter’s data into $20 billion in value.
The straw-grasping for synergies highlights a fundamental problem with the notion that the solution to Twitter’s problems is new ownership. For Twitter to be worth anything resembling its present market value, it has to evolve into something with broader global appeal than it holds today. And it has to become a profit engine in its own right, not just a cross-promotional tool for some other corporate division that makes money.
Google and Facebook are the only potential buyers that make much financial sense, because they’re the only ones big enough to buy Twitter that know how to make money via online advertising. (They also might be the only ones equipped to harness the company’s personal data.) But both have very different cultures and philosophies than Twitter, and both deals would raise big antitrust flags. They’d also be buying the very kind of troll problem that they’ve both been trying desperately to avoid.
With all the people who use and love Twitter every day, you’d think there must be a way to squeeze some more revenue from it. Surely there is, and it’s fair to criticize Twitter for not having found it yet. But a big part of the reason Twitter has moved slowly is that the company has a genuine commitment to its original vision for a real-time social feed that can connect anyone to anyone around the world, without pre-emptive mediation by editors or algorithms. Jack Dorsey returned to the permanent CEO role less than a year ago. It’s fantasy to suggest that a new owner could come in and solve the platform’s problems faster than that without sacrificing what people like about it.
Besides, the moment a new owner tries to “leverage” Twitter to promote its existing business, to the exclusion of products or information from its corporate rivals will be the moment Twitter as we know it truly dies. The same goes for a new owner who tries to broaden its appeal by sanitizing the site of controversial content, as one fears a company such as Disney might do. It’s essential that Twitter find ways to rein in personal abuse on its platform, but does anyone think a giant old-media company is going to be the one to solve that problem in a creative and nuanced way, while preserving the freewheeling spirit that gives the service its appeal? Where Twitter tries (albeit inconsistently) to stand up for activists, dissidents, and truth-tellers in countries bent on censorship, would a disinterested corporate owner find a more profitable and less permissive path?
Twitter has big problems, it’s true. But any company that buys it will find itself with those same problems on its hands, and any lucrative solution is likely to come with significant trade-offs. Ultimately, the company best positioned to fix Twitter is the one that fully understands those trade-offs, yet remains committed to making the platform more popular and profitable in its own right. The only owner that makes sense for Twitter, flawed as it may be, is Twitter itself.