Twitter, the social network that offers real-time updates and requires brevity, is no longer growing. How did this happen and what should Twitter do to get back on even keel?
What challenges is Twitter faced with at the moment?
"When we talk about evolution, it's really interesting if you compare Twitter with Facebook because it's the obvious comparison. When you look at their early uptake of monthly active users, they both, for the first five or six years of their existence, had a very straight upwards line in terms of every quarter, gaining more and more users. And then what seems to happen to Twitter - well, it's very clear, what happened to Twitter. At the start of 2015 it just levels off - Twitter seems to have reached this natural ceiling of 300 million monthly users, and it can't seem to get beyond that. It's sort of found its maximum audience, whereas Facebook has continued to grow, and it looks like it's going get to two billion at some point.
I think one of the reasons why Twitter reached this critical mass, but never managed to get beyond it is, as you say, you know, one of the problems is trolls. Another problem is, generally speaking, I think the user experience on Twitter was not as friendly or as accessible to people as the one on Facebook was because, you have these problems with trolls. You have these problems with loads of junk. Accounts that were clearly bots or spam. And also it was because Twitter had no algorithm or no way of rating content.
And I think if that was the core problem with Twitter, is that it wasn't good at holding on to people that then sparked a whole load of bigger problems, corporate problems. The fact that they can't grow anymore, that they're really struggling to grow, has obviously led to massive turmoil. At the corporate level, Jack Dorsey has come back as the CEO in order to try to drive the company forward but that hasn't been enormously or obviously successful yet. They had a very high turnover in terms of management stuff. Last year there were a lot of very senior people leaving. The share price has stagnated.
When we talk about threats to Twitter from other platforms, I still think there's not been a platform that's been developed yet that can rival Twitter in terms of its qualities as a soap box, or a platform for expressing opinions because obviously there are things like, in terms of sort of throw away comments that you share with your friends."
What can Twitter do to turn its fortune around?
"I think usability and UX are really important because, as I've said, it works as a soap box. It's a good way for influential people, like Donald Trump is a classic example of someone who's used Twitter very effectively of getting up and saying what they want to say. But the problem is, for ordinary people, what you say gets lost and so what you need is to have a better system, like what you say gets seen and engaged with by other people in your circle. You know, friends and other ordinary people - because otherwise there's no point of you putting it out there. And I think one of the things that Twitter has started to do, which suggests that it might be able to turn its problems around and seems like a very sensible innovation, is an algorithm on the feed which is obviously, one of the very basic tenets of Twitter was that there was no algorithm and it was just a live feed and it just updated as it went. And Facebook was the algorithm platform so if you wanted curated stuff, you went to Facebook. And if you just wanted a live scroll of what was going on, you went to Twitter. But because Twitter has put an algorithm on, it means that when you log back in what pops up at the top of your feed is a sort of while you're away feature, which tends to include people that you are friends with, rather than a deluge of updates from a media company that you've followed. And that means that you have a better idea of what your peers and colleagues are talking about and you can then engage with that.
One of the things you'll see now in your feed is tweets that other people close to you have liked and that you might be interested in. So there's a lot more curation going on which is, I think, giving people a much better user experience and means that if you're new to the platform and you show up for the first time, you no longer get this feeling of sort of being a lone voice in the desert. There are people listening to you and you feel more engaged with the platform.
And I think there are loads of people who have used Twitter before for the first time, come on to it, had an awful user experience, left and they might never be recovered. But for new people coming to Twitter for the first time, I get the sense that it's going be a more accessible experience for them and they're not going be as turned off by it. And I think working around that, and working around having a highly curated, enjoyable, relatable experience on Twitter, will be the way that they can serve and possibly start to grow their user base again."
Should marketers start to dial down their investment into Twitter before it turns into the next Google+ like ghost town?
"Sure - I think the problem with Google+ is that, I mean it was a ghost town from the beginning. Everyone signed in, but no one did anything with it. Whereas Twitter at least, people have always done stuff on Twitter. There's always been a critical mass of stuff happening. So, I don't think Twitter is going to disappear entirely. One of the really interesting things that we've seen from a data perspective is that, at "The Economist" our following on Twitter is growing all of the time, but actually, the number of people seeing any individual tweet is shrinking. So there's two possible reasons for that.
The first is that no one is logging in anymore and so your tweets just aren't being seen by anyone. But the second, is that lots of people are logging in but because Twitter has introduced algorithmic element only certain users are seeing your tweets, or the personal tweets of people they know being prioritized at the top of their feed and so they only occasionally get down to the tweets being pushed up by larger accounts, by publishers or by brands, those things being pushed down the feed. And if that is the case, then what it suggests to me is that any given post that you put on Twitter is going to get less attention than before, which means that, you need to adjust your expectations accordingly.
But on the other hand, while that's true in the short-term, the brands posting on Twitter might see less return on any given posts they put out. In the long-term if this curation element means that more people are joining Twitter and retaining their accounts, then it's going be good for the brands and publishers right, because there will be a bigger audience there, and even if any given tweets are being seen by fewer people, having a bigger audience means that you can potentially reach more people.
In short, I think marketers should be prepared for a little bit of short-term pain perhaps in terms of the potential reach they're getting from their campaigns, but if Twitter can use these changes to increase the following, I think in the long-term it's possible that Twitter will start to pick up again. It's current trajectory doesn't suggest that it's going to turn into a sort of empty platform like Google+ or MySpace."