I feel honored, in a very weird way, to have witnessed the birth, growth, stumbling, and inevitable death of a global phenomenon. I might have said that about Gangnam Style, but somehow that bloody video is still attracting views.
I’m referring to Twitter, and I have such fond memories of Twitter. They launched in 2006, but it was only in 2008 that I became aware of it. My first memories of Twitter was that it was a faster, lighter, and somewhat less-sophisticated version of Facebook, which I had first joined in 2007.
Within a South African context, I was on Twitter before it was cool. It’s hard to believe in 2016, where basically every talk show and marketing campaign is using hashtags, and questionable social movements are using the platform to rally and organize social change – but there was a time when Twitter in SA was small. Really, really small.
Small enough that in May 2008, a few of us started assembling a manually-curated directory of South African Twitter users. This was back when Twitter didn’t have a search feature (remember how that used to be a whole separate site?), and geolocation wasn’t even remotely an option.
The Internet Archive will forever immortalize this entry on a free PBWorks wiki (used to be Peanut Butter Wiki, by the way), before the spam came along.
Three months later, the list had grown to a mere 150, and I think we got to about 300 before Twitter started gaining some real traction here in SA.
By September 2008, Twitter had introduced us all to the concept of the Fail Whale, and outages were about as common as uptime. I quite liked Twitter, though, and they had a REST API -so between that API, a profile search feature, and a few cron jobs, I built a South African shadow site, called TwitterSA.com.
All it did, really, was continuously search for users that had South Africa (or major cities) as their location in their profiles, automatically follow them, and cache all their tweets in its own database. I recall eventually adding a signup feature, and started scraping the tweets for popular links and hashtags that were being shared.
Yes, it was basically a nascent social media listening platform. If I knew how popular those would have become in the years to follow, I definitely would have held on to it a lot more strongly than I did.
It had a brief, but glorious reign. At one point it held the definitive directory of South African Twitter users, and even, some crazy how, got myself and the designer featured in an ITWeb column.
That lasted until about July 2009, when Twitter started sending out Cease & Desists to all domains that included “Twitter” in the name. We received it, discussed it for about two minutes, and decided to shut down the site. Twitter was only a few months away from launching their Geolocation API, which would have made the service redundant anyway.
Since then, I’ve been perpetually on-and-off Twitter, simultaneously inspired and frustrated by it. I never could figure out the best way to make use of it, and towards the end of 2015 I started making the mistake of trying to have rational debates through the platform.
Turns out, 140 characters at a time is not a good medium for debate, and the average participant who attempts it is not really great at communicating complex, cogent arguments – myself included. Retweets make it far too easy to take things out of context and magnify them to a hostile audience, and it’s way, way too easy to get mobbed off the service.
Which is why I quit in February 2016.
I left it connected to my WordPress.com account, on the off chance that some of my audience would appreciate the stuff I write here – but on the whole, I disengaged completely. Frustrating limitations, hostile audience, apathetic moderation – was there any other outcome?
And it turned out, I wasn’t the only one starting to feel this way. Me dropping off Twitter came as the stock coasted to its lowest level since IPO:
As it turns out, it’s really hard to monetize such a shitty place. And I choose that word with the utmost care:
- The highest engagement comes from social media addicts and internet trolls
- The tools basically streamline the hate mob and harassment process
- The ad formats infringe directly on the stream experience
- Twitter’s API policies turned exclusive and hostile, alienating developers
- Nearly every algorithm adjustment upset users, who wanted reverse-chronological feeds entirely of their own curation
- Twitter was routinely in the news for all the wrong reasons – usually because of someone famous (or just an inconsequential profile) saying something stupid that blew up
I suppose the smart Twitter investors started cottoning on to the fact that something was wrong back in April 2015, when they started redefining (almost every quarter) the metrics they used for measuring their own success. The less-smart investors would have started getting alarmed in August 2015, when the SEC started asking pointed questions about how Twitter was running their business.
For me, though, the moment of clarity came just last month, in August 2016, with a long-form Buzzfeed article entitled Inside Twitter’s 10-year failure to stop harassment. It’s a fascinating read, and in a few months, will serve as the pre-post-mortem of why Twitter collapsed the way it did.
So as of today, Twitter is on the chopping block. And the one piece of data that is really telling? Twitter’s stock price, the moment news broke of a potential sale:
That’s the last heartbeat of a company destined for flat-lining: When their stock gains instant value only because there might be a quick return. It’s a bit of a “vultures are circling” situation, with some of the braver ones picking at the still-lumbering victim.
At this point investor sentiment is basically clear – Twitter has to go. I can’t imagine there’ll be a last-second magic trick that restores Twitter’s credibility and independence. If that were possible, it would have emerged at some point in the last five years.
So what’s next? One thing to bear in mind is that no social network, post-acquisition, has actually survived in a form that in any way resembled the original. Social networks are tricky things, and new owners typically want a good financial return on their investment.
Whoever buys Twitter is getting a mixed bag of:
- Some very good distributed message processing tech – global scale, realtime delivery
- An executive team void of any real direction
- A disillusioned workforce, whose attempts to improve the platform have met with repeated failure
- A social hot potato, in that Twitter is more or less the new 4chan, and were forced to create a Safety Council in reaction to “extreme” speech
- A political hot potato, in that anyone with clout will want the service sanitized to remove harsh messaging about them.
- A financial hot potato, with declining ad revenues across the board
- A brand that created two new entries in the Oxford Dictionary: Twitter and Tweet
- A grab-bag of acquisitions: Vine, Periscope, some adtech and design startups
- And a domain name that, if you think about it, is kinda dumb – birds can’t use smartphones
About the only thing that makes sense, acquisition-wise, would be to turn Twitter into a one-way content provider: letting brands and verified celebrities use it as a platform to push out messaging, while severely limiting user interaction – like how Hollywood works right now, basically.
A dumb content pipe with no controversies and news blowups is preferable, commercially speaking, to a public square for free speech and open debate. It’s a lot easier to monetize a captive and engaged audience, and if there’s one thing that news outlets in particular have realized in the last year, you don’t need a public feedback facility to enable that.
I might even start using Twitter again, should it turn into something that has a net positive effect on my mood. A safe content delivery pipeline, pushed to the top of your phone, with granular interest tracking, personalized content and real-time feedback? Marketer’s wet dream.
But for now, enjoy the long shadows cast by the setting sun that is Twitter.