Twitter not dead, yet

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If you’re read the news lately – probably through links on your Twitter feed – you’ve probably read that Twitter is terminal and about to die, die, die.

After murmurings about lack of growth and lack of monetisation, CEO Dick Costolo last month said he was leaving.
Never has the resignation of a CEO prompted such a terrible outpouring of premature obituaries (well, since Mark Hurd left HP) or seen such a precipitous decline in market sentiment.

Or has it? Twitter has 300m active users who use the network.

TwitterIt may never be as big as Facebook, which managed to roll with the changes in how people have adapted how they use social media over the years. But Facebook was always a much more complex, closed system than Twitter and therefore had greater potential to find the next interesting thing in social media engagement. Because of Facebook’s enormity, it has also been able to scale.

Twitter has revolutionised how we read the news, how celebrities communicate with their fans, how brands interact with their consumers, how marketing is done and how funny cat videos go viral.

Along the way, Twitter has transformed how news websites are read. People no longer go to the front page and click on stories they see, they link directly into the stories, deep inside the website. It has, to use that wonderful word employed to describe it, the effect of “de-emphasising” of the front page.

But there have long been misgivings about growth and profitability; and concerns about its lack of strategy. Twitter has always been – and always will be – compared to Facebook, now the unassailable behemoth of social media, despite the gains made by upstarts like WeChat, and in no small part because of the acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram.

Twitter’s greatest advantage – its 140-character message limit – has suddenly been named as its biggest failure. Recent moves to make the Direct Message messages unlimited has been dismissed as too-little-too-late.
Similarly, Twitter’s never ending waterfall of tweets has gone from being praised for being a real-time stream (or deluge) of information, to being scorned or lacking coherence and structure.

Facebook saw the waterfall problem coming and has built algorithms that make it easier to manage what shows up in your news feed (in no small part based on previous Likes). Now Facebook is not just a walled-garden, but a curated walled-garden. Anyone remember AOL?

Facebook has built its own video serving system – therefore excluding YouTube, and keeping a lot of traffic it was otherwise giving to Google – and said last year it was displaying 1bn videos a day on average since June last year. Of this, 65% was via mobile.

YouTube said it was serving 4bn videos a day in 2012, and now has 1bn users. YouTube, incidentally, says that half of its views are on mobile, and mobile revenue has grown over 100% year-on-year.

Facebook has beefed up its mobile offerings, and last year said it had 100m users in Africa, of which 80% used mobile.

Now Twitter – with all its lack of filtering and unadulterated access to real-time info – is accused of not being relevant, of having stalled, of having stagnated.

But I think it misses the point in a few ways.

Firstly, Twitter has always had a large proportion of “lurkers” – people who lurk around in online chat rooms (the digital precursor to social media) and read what goes on without themselves participating.

I would warrant that Facebook has as large a percentage of non-commentators who read their feeds anyway. Facebook has become much more effective at showing ads to those lurkers.

Twitter might have plateaued at this 300m user mark that people are bizarrely dismissive of. What can be a bad thing about *only* having 300m users?

Monetisation is hardly ever a key concern in Silicon Valley, is it?

Twitter might be down, but it’s by no means out. It will continue to play its niche (if you can call 300m users niche) role as the real-time purveyor of news, celebrity gossip, brand shaming and cat videos. Always the bloody cat videos.

This column was first published on Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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