Is this Twitter's Moment or Twitter's big fade? An enterprisey view

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed October 15, 2015
Summary:
The tech media is abuzz with news of Twitter layoffs and leadership changes. A more interesting discussion is provoked by two radically different takes on Twitter's future.

It's been a volatile few weeks for the most open - and frustrating - of our major social networks. Twitter's much-rumored layoffs are now announced. The layoffs number in the hundreds (336 at last count). Employees took to - where else - Twitter to break the news.

The backdrop of these announcements was ontrasted by two radically different views on Twitter's future: Umair Haque's Why Twitter is Dying (and what you can learn from it), and Ben Thompson's Twitter's Moment. Thompson, who analyzes the consumer tech sector (Apple and Facebook in particular), surprised me with his upbeat take given he has not been bullish on Twitter in the past.

I'm going to attempt to reconcile these two divergent views through an enterprise lens. Let's see how I do.

Haque: Twitter is a cemetery

Haque, who excels at deconstructing techtopia while urging us towards culture change, starts down a well-trodden path. He sees a decreasing vitality:

It’s early fall, and I’m at my favorite cafe in London. What the? Twitter’s a cemetery. Populated by ghosts. I call them the “ists”. Journalists retweeting journalists…activists retweeting activists…economists retweeting economists…once in a while a great war breaks out between this group of “ists” and that…but the thing is: no one’s listening…because everyone else seems to have left in a hurry.

Few would contest that the caliber of Twitter conversations has deteriorated. I see less engagement per tweet now than ever before (and by engagement, I don't mean compulsive retweets. I mean the real value, which is sparking good - if spastic - conversations).

Haque argues that "abuse" is bringing Twitter towards a reckoning:

We once glorified Twitter as a great global town square, a shining agora where everyone could come together to converse. But I’ve never been to a town square where people can shove, push, taunt, bully, shout, harass, threaten, stalk, creep, and mob you…for eavesdropping on a conversation that they weren’t a part of…to alleviate their own existential rage…at their shattered dreams…and you can’t even call a cop. What does that particular social phenomenon sound like to you? Twitter could have been a town square. But now it’s more like a drunken, heaving mosh pit.

He has a point. The anonymity of Twitter is occasionally useful, but mostly a platform for astounding ugliness. This isn't as big a problem for enterprise convos. Anonymous potshots are less common on #ensw streams, and the discussions are usually civil - at least when you compare them to the putrid tweets celebrities and politicians are bombarded with. It's not far removed from my own post about the dangers of the social mob and the hypocrisy of Twitter shaming.

Haque, no stranger to hyperbole,eventually concedes that Twitter isn't dying. But he thinks what Twitter once aspired to might be dead. The dream of the vibrant town square has been replaced by warring online tribes - to the detriment of civil discourse, and perhaps to our ability to solve humanity's predicaments.

Haque ties the problem of abuse directly to Twitter's monetization woes:

And while there are people who love to dive into mosh pits, they’re probably not the audience you want to try to build a billion dollar publicly listed company that changes the world upon.

But is social abuse the reason Twitter struggles to monetize? Facebook is monetizing rather nicely, and I see plenty of ugliness on Facebook. YouTube still has big monetization problems, but would anyone blame the cultural cesspool that is YouTube comments? Do we refuse to watch YouTube videos because of the juvenalia underneath them?

Turning our attention to Thompson, his piece Twitter's Moment is a play on Twitter's new app, Moments. At the risk of grossly simplifying his views, Thompson's newfound optimism about Twitter boils down to:

  1. He *really* likes the Moments app and what it could mean for ease of use/monetization.
  2. He likes Jack Dorsey as Twitter head honcho.

I have only tried Moments briefly. The app doesn't interest me much because I have other ways of getting the daily content insights I need. Still, making sense of a chaotic feed is a good endeavor for Twitter. If it's embedded in the mobile app, as Moments is, so much the better. Thompson thinks Moments fills a void Google and Facebook missed. Google provides intentional info via search; Facebook excels at "serendipitous" insights via social discovery. But that's not enough:

If you actually want to get informed about what is happening, without knowing what you want to know, then it’s not clear what is the best answer.

Well, Mr. Thompson, my best answer is my RSS mobile reader, but I take it you haven't discovered those wonders. At any rate, Thompson would correctly rebut that feedreaders will never mainstream. They are slow to breaking/rapidly unfolding stories, which Moments could excel at. Why? Because Moments doesn't just collect story links; it's a dynamic story driven by topical tweets. During a breaking news event, Moments could be real asset.

Thompson is also correct that we are in dire need of fluid curation that enables mobile consumption without getting buried in triviata. Moments provides a form of algo-driven curation. Thompson sees a financial benefit also. Moments should lend itself to better advertising options than Twitter has had in the past. even in the adblocking era:

I do think the ads will be great, regardless. The placement opportunity within stories is obvious, and like the best sort of in-stream native advertising the brand in question will take over the entire screen, if only for a moment. And, like the other networks I just listed, Moment ads will be both unblockable and located where users live, not where they visit.

Thompson is also confident in Dorsey's return. He's more qualified than I to speak on that, though I agree with Without Bullshit blogger Josh Bernoff that Dorsey's email to employees about the layoffs was refreshingly direct.

My take

Thompson is right: Twitter's monetization problem stems from ads that lack context and don't actually embed into audiences. Whether Moments alleviates that problem, or for that matter whether Dorsey can turn the ship around, is an open question. But if Haque's analysis of Twitter's financial woes is off, his critique of the failure of so-called tech "innovation" to save us from ourselves lingers. (his piece skewering startups for lacking world-changing ambition was even better).

For the enterprise, the question is more immediate: how should a company use Twitter, given its limitations? My take:

  • Even with reduced attention per tweet, Twitter is still effective for article sharing. Use caution about one-way link blasting - generate conversations around content wherever possible.
  • Fine tune social media guidelines to address the disconcerting problem of mobs and trolls.
  • Investigate the Moments app, and see if it might prove relevant to your company, particularly around event hashtags and mobile engagement.
  • Event hashtags are still the Twitter high point for most companies, but striving for trending status and record-breaking tweet volumes is overrated. What is underrated? Curating hectic event streams to achieve lasting context. Constellation's Holger Mueller has been doing a great job of this on Storify lately.

However Twitter fares, changes to the platform will be gradual. There's no immediate risk investing in Twitter engagement. I think it was Vinnie Mirchandani who first told me that "Twitter is an echo chamber". That point still stands. It doesn't mean Twitter has no value . But: enterprise buyers are a rare breed on Twitter. That means enterprises must establish their own ways of assessing value and tracking Twitter referrals. "Hot takes" on Twitter are good fodder, but will always come up short for enterprise dilemmas.

Image credits: Growth concept © Sergey Nivens - Fotolia.com

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