Jack Dorsey hasn't fixed the trouble with Twitter

Social media mainstream users’ love-hate relationship with Twitter continues despite recent changes to the decade-old service by its co-founder Jack Dorsey, floundering against rivals Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 July, 2016, 12:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 July, 2016, 9:54am

Julieanne Smolinski started hanging out on Twitter in 2009. She has 175,000 followers to whom she tells jokes and promotes her work as a journalist and as a television writer. In February, she says she quit Twitter “the way you quit your favourite restaurant when it suffers an E.coli outbreak”.

The problem? The jerks who spewed hateful comments and the perverts who tweeted their genitalia at her.

After about a month of going cold turkey, Smolinski relented and signed back in to Twitter. “I had stuff to annoyingly promote and missed the good parts – like jokes and news and my friends annoyingly promoting their stuff,” she says.

And that’s just the trouble with Twitter. Many people have a love-hate relationship with it. Or they have no relationship with it at all.

A pioneer in real-time social media, Twitter used to be one of the most buzzed about companies in Silicon Valley. Even today, conversations that take place on the service, famous for its 140-character limit, tap into the world’s pulse, be it the escalating feud between Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren, protests on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, the Congressional sit-in over gun control or the launch of Beyoncé’s Lemonade album.

Yet for years the social media service has struggled to keep the spotlight as competitors Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat encroached on its turf and spirited away users.

One year ago Twitter bet the company’s future on Jack Dorsey with the hope that its visionary co-founder could do what his predecessors could not: find a new audience for the 10-year-old service and fix long-festering problems.

With frequent management and strategy shifts and paralysing turmoil inside the company, Twitter has not altered its service enough to appeal to the mainstream, stunting growth. Increasing abuse on the service has alienated many, especially women.

Dorsey, who splits his time between Twitter and digital payments company Square, replaced Dick Costolo as chief executive last July on an interim basis. He was tapped to remain in the job in October.

With the cachet of a company founder who helped create the service, Dorsey swooped in with a broad mandate.

His ambitious goal: to make Twitter a service everyone has to check to know what’s going on in the world.

“No one is more determined than I am to see this company achieve its promise,” Dorsey said in October.

Dorsey has set out five priorities for Twitter: improving the experience for veteran users and newcomers alike, increasing the focus on live video, taking extra care of content creators, celebrities and other “influencers,” making the service safer and ramping up outreach to software developers.

Yet changes to the service on Dorsey’s watch – a news curation feature called Moments, changing its “favourite” star button to a “like” heart button, loosening the 140-character limit – have not persuaded enough people to give Twitter a try.

In the intensifying fight for eyeballs and ad dollars, flat growth has been the crushing blow. Facebook has 1.6 billion monthly active users, Instagram, 500 million, and Snapchat, 00 million daily active users. Twitter has stopped growing at about 310 million monthly active users. And, in what is undoubtedly causing collective heartburn inside Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg is taking direct aim at Twitter with his new focus on “live” for Facebook.

“Investors hoped in getting rid of Dick Costolo, they would get a doer, someone who would change things, reach out to non-users and get them to use the service,” but that has not happened, says Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.

“Your mum knows if she joins Facebook, she will see pictures of your kid. She doesn’t know why she should join Twitter.”

Even some long-time users aren’t always sure why they are on Twitter any more.

When he was a journalist for a tech trade publication, Lee Pender diligently tweeted his work to his 650 followers.

“But I didn’t like to engage on Twitter, and I still don’t,” he says. The 140-character limit “encourages shouting instead of thoughtful conversation. And tweets go by at too rapid a pace to follow”.

Pender, a marketing writer , says he let his account languish until it was hacked a few weeks ago and he deleted it. He opened a new account in case he ever needs it but has only tweeted from it once.

He does maintain another account to follow soccer, showing how valuable Twitter can be for tracking live events.

“It’s good for rapid updates, and I can check in occasionally and have a pretty good idea of what’s happening,” Pender says.

Still, Twitter has plenty of die-hard loyalists like Megan Calhoun who spend hours on it each day.

In 2008, Calhoun began connecting with other stay-at-home mums on Twitter. Today she runs Megan Media, the parent company of Social Moms, which connects brands with her community of content creators and influencers.

Social Moms grew through word-of-mouth on Twitter and Twitter remains “one of our most important channels”, Calhoun says.

Social Moms even saw a resurgence in growth on Twitter in the past year. Its Twitter account now has more than 500,000 followers.

“My experience with Twitter has been very positive for me personally,” Calhoun says, “and definitely for our business.”

Tribune News Service