Twitter probably isn't for you or me any more

June 25, 2018

I'm currently feeling unhappy about Twitter, because last Friday I confirmed that my Linux Twitter client is going to stop working in less than two months in Twitter's client apocalypse (my iOS client is very likely to be affected too). This development isn't an exception; instead it's business as usual for Twitter, at least as long term and active users of Twitter see it. Twitter has a long history of making product changes that we don't want and ignoring the ones that we do want, like a return of chronological timelines. Worse, even bigger ones are said to be on the way, with further changes from the classical Twitter experience. Why is Twitter ignoring its long term users this way? Is it going to change its mind? My guess is probably not. Instead, I've come to believe that Twitter has made a cold blooded business decision that it's not for you or me any more.

Here is how I see things at the moment, from my grumpy and cynical perspective.

Twitter is a tech company with a highly priced stock, which current investors want and need to be even higher. To support and increase its stock price, Twitter needs to grow its revenue and grow it fast (no one is going to sit around for five or ten years of slow growth). Like many modern Internet companies, Twitter is currently mostly an advertising company and makes money by showing ads to its users. There are three broad ways for an ad company to increase the money coming in; it can:

  1. increase the value of its ads, so companies will pay more for them.
  2. show more ads to current users.
  3. increase the number of (active) users, so it sells more ads in total.

The first seems unlikely to happen, especially given that Internet ad trends seem to be running the other way. The second generally doesn't work too well and can work against the first. Neither of them, separately or together, seem likely to deliver the sort of major growth Twitter needs (even if they work, they both have limits). So that leaves increasing the number of users.

But Twitter has already been trying to grow its user base for years, generally without much success and certainly without the very visible large scale growth that investors need. As part of this, Twitter has spent years refining and tinkering with the core Twitter product in attempts to draw in more users and get them to be more active, and with moderate exceptions it hasn't worked. The modern Twitter is genuinely more pleasant in various modest ways than it was when I started, but it's manifestly not drawing in hordes of new users.

In this situation, Twitter has a choice. It could double down on its past approach, trying yet more tweaks to the current core Twitter experience in a 'this time for sure' bet even though that's repeatedly failed before. Alternately, it could make a cold blooded business decision to shift to a significantly different core experience that (Twitter feels) has a much better chance of pulling in the vast ocean of users in the world who aren't particularly attracted to the current version of Twitter, and may even be turned off by it.

I believe that Twitter's made the second choice. It's decided to change what 'Twitter' is; as a result, 'Twitter' is no longer for you and me, the people who like it as it is, as a chronological timeline and so on. 'Twitter' the experience is now going to be for the new users that Twitter (the company) needs in order to have a chance of growing revenue enough and keeping its share price up. If the new experience displeases or outright alienates you and me, that's just tough luck for us. The Twitter that we find interesting and compelling, the product that's useful to us, well, it's apparently not capable of growing big enough (for Twitter's investors, at least; it might be a profitable company without the baggage of a high stock price).

(Analogies to the rise and then the stall of syndication feed reading are left as an exercise for the reader, including any arguments that there was or wasn't a natural limit to the number of people who'd ever want to use a feed reader.)

I have no idea and no opinions on where this leaves you and me, the people who like Twitter as it is, or what alternatives we really have, especially if the community we've found on Twitter is important to us. The unpleasant answer may be that things will just dissolve; we'll all walk away in our own separate and scattered directions, as people walked away from Usenet communities once upon a time.

PS: Twitter added 6 million 'monthly active users' in Q1 2018 (and not all of them will be bots), but it also attributed a bunch of this to new experiences and features, not the core product suddenly being more attractive. See also, about Twitter's Q4 2017. Twitter is also apparently making more money from video ads, but there's a limit to how much money growth that can drive; after a certain point, they're (almost) all video ads.

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I was mostly Twitter-free for a year or so, and it was going well. Japan is to the rescue as usual, with Pawoo. English-language instances weren't all that stable, and they don't have a business model, but with alternative, lightweight implementations like Pleroma, it's feasible to run my own infrastructure once again. I know you were very much against this practice, but I run my own BIND and Postfix, so the only thing that's really holding me back is the concerns for DDoS spilling over and damaging my e-mail. I even have a separate domain reserved.

Written on 25 June 2018.
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Last modified: Mon Jun 25 23:40:25 2018
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