NEW YORK — Well, that’s it folks: Twitter is dead. It had a good flight. A short flight, but a noisy one. Sadly, it is now headed the way of Flappy Bird.
So claims the Atlantic in a 1,800-word “eulogy for Twitter” that packs in about 140 characters’ worth of actual evidence. No need to read the whole piece — the fourth paragraph sums it up:
“The publishing platform that carried us into the mobile Internet age is receding. Its influence on publishing will remain, but the platform’s place in Internet culture is changing in a way that feels irreversible and echoes the tradition of AIM and pre-2005 blogging. A lot of this argument comes down to what we feel.”
At least the Atlantic admits that its case against Twitter amounts to an unsubstantiated hunch. On Wall Street, meanwhile, investors are flocking to downgrade the company’s stock on the basis of selective evidence. Two numbers in particular — the number of users who log into Twitter each month, and the number of timelines they viewed — have been widely interpreted as indictments of the company’s growth trajectory. Both figures are growing, but their rate of growth has slowed slightly. Twitter will probably never have as many users as Facebook, Wall Street is belatedly realizing. Wall Street hates that.
But Wall Street — along with everyone else who’s down on Twitter because it has “a growth problem” — is making a mistake by comparing it to Facebook. Twitter is not a social network. Not primarily, anyway. It’s better described as a social media platform, with the emphasis on “media platform.” And media platforms should not be judged by the same metrics as social networks.
Social networks connect people with one another. Those connections tend to be reciprocal. Facebook even checks in on you now and then to make sure you’ve actually met the folks who are sending you friend requests. As a social network, its chief function is to help friends, family and acquaintances keep in touch.
Media platforms, by contrast, connect publishers with their public. Those connections tend not to be reciprocal. One Twitter user may be followed by millions of strangers whom she feels no obligation to follow back, any more than an evening news anchor feels the need to check in with each of her viewers every night at 6. As a media platform, Twitter’s chief function is to help people keep up with what’s going on in the world, and what influential people are thinking and doing at any given time. In that regard, it’s closer to a news service than a social network.
That’s no accident: A turning point in Twitter’s development came when early employees excitedly tweeted about a minor earthquake they’d just felt. And Twitter CEO Dick Costolo was the founder of Feedburner, an RSS feed management service that was acquired by Google. Twitter is to news as Instagram is to photography.
Sure, some people tweet privately and follow only their friends, just as some segment of people post publicly on Facebook and allow strangers to follow them. But while those private tweeters may be large in number, they are not the ones who give Twitter its identity.
Here’s what Wall Street needs to understand: Since Facebook is made up of a huge number of roughly equivalent individual users, its volume of “monthly active users” is a reasonable way to measure its growth and scope. Twitter comprises a relatively small number of public figures broadcasting their messages publicly and a somewhat larger direct audience. That makes “monthly active users” a crude metric at best, since one group of users is very different from the other.
To further complicate things, Twitter’s most influential users do not tweet with the expectation that they’ll be heard only with the people who follow them directly. Rather, they treat the platform like it’s a one-way TV interview, using Twitter to break news, to win arguments, to build their brands, to hone their public personas. That’s because they understand that some of their tweets are likely to resonate far beyond Twitter.com and the Twitter app. The photo that Barack Obama tweeted when he won re-election was viewed by tens of millions of Americans who have never used Twitter. Ditto Ellen’s Oscars selfie.
Twitter’s active users then, are only the most easily measured portion of its audience. And the number of timelines people view on the site or app does not capture the service’s vast reach. Even if you’ve never signed up for Twitter, you’ve almost certainly been part of the audience for tweets, whether they’re displayed on television, quoted on the radio, or embedded in an article like this one. Whether you choose to or not, you’re likely to see more in the months and years to come. Yet you won’t show up in any of the metrics Wall Street is relying on to assess its growth.
Don’t be surprised to see Twitter become more YouTube-like, turning its home page into a real-time news platform accessible to anyone, whether they’re logged in or not. That would expand its potential user base to include, for the first time, the majority of Americans who have no interest in either tweeting or curating their own Twitter timelines. If and when that happens, I doubt we’ll be hearing much about Twitter’s growth problem — let alone its demise.
Oremus is a Slate staff writer, reporting on technology and digital culture.