How Twitter lost its groove

It seems like such a short time ago that Twitter was considered a global game changer. To trend on Twitter meant relevance and cultural cachet. The company broke barriers and set agendas and provided a forum where all voices carried equal weight, where the rich, famous and powerful could interact directly with the average person.

And then something changed.

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The number of users stopped growing, a creeping sense that Twitter was losing its hallowed status began to set in and the company lost control of its own narrative – ironic for a company in the communications business. An article in The Atlantic in 2014, “A Eulogy for Twitter,” set the tone for what lay ahead: “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.”

Last week, Twitter posted a gloomy second-quarter earnings report, posting a $107 million net loss on $602 million in sales. No other quarter in Twitter’s history as a public company has had such slow revenue growth. Shares fell 11% in response to the news.

Monthly active user figures continue to remain stagnant at just over 300 million. In comparison, Instagram recently hit 500 million active users. Snapchat has already hit more than 100 million daily users in its short lifetime, and more significantly has captured the highly sought-after millennial demographic, reaching 41% of 18-34 year olds in the US each day.

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Today, Twitter is the subject of feverish speculation that it will be acquired – a major comedown for the once-mighty social media giant.

So what happened?

In addition to the continual departure of high-level executives – just yesterday it was announced that the Vice President of Communications was leaving the company less than six months after joining – and behind-the-scenes machinations that border on the Shakespearean, Twitter has a bigger problem. The open online democracy of its platform has turned out to be a haven for abusive, inflammatory and threatening content. The term “Twitter troll” has become part of the lexicon and few users are immune.

Journalists, politicians, gamers, celebrities and women from all walks of life have been subject to abusive comments (enabled in part by anonymity) that have often escalated to violent threats. While it is inevitable that a platform founded on the idea of free expression will create some dissent, Twitter’s apparent inability to respond effectively to the issue of abusive commentary or even take it seriously has pushed once-prolific users entirely off the platform. In fact, in recent months a number of high-profile users have publicly removed themselves from Twitter for that very reason.

Jonathan Weisman, a New York Times editor, announced in June that he was quitting Twitter following a prolonged period of harassment, including graphic anti-Semitic comments. In his words, he is “awaiting some sign from Twitter that it cares whether its platform is becoming a cesspit of hate.”

While Twitter has explicit terms of service in place addressing hateful conduct and harassment, it has repeatedly been accused of failing to enforce these terms of service or make clear how these criteria are applied.

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There have been some signs that Twitter has begun to recognize the magnitude of this problem. Following a campaign of prolonged abuse directed against the comedienne Leslie Jones in July, Twitter barred Milo Yiannopoulos, a technology editor at the news site Breitbart who was accused of orchestrating the campaign against her. In its response Twitter acknowledged that it had not done enough to curb this kind of behavior and said it is investing in ‘tools and enforcement systems’ to target abusive comments.

But it may just be too little too late.

I have seen a clear pattern of companies and clients moving away from the platform or centralizing their communications via one company-approved, well-managed Twitter account. The likelihood that a 140-character message will be misinterpreted or that conversations will be ambushed by trolls is just too high and the potential damage is too great.

That isn’t necessarily a recommendation to disengage from social media – after all, no platform is immune to abuse – but rather companies should prioritize channels like Facebook and LinkedIn, for example, where there is less opportunity for anonymity and more scope for authenticity.

Twitter isn’t dead. It can still generate buzz and dominate the public conversation, as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has demonstrated time and again. And the company has made a number of acquisitions in recent months, including some in the artificial intelligence space, which may indicate that it is not yet ready to throw in the towel. But the numbers don’t lie, and unless Jack Dorsey can somehow recapture that elusive active user audience and make Twitter a hospitable environment once again, it seems the platform’s days may be numbered.