Too Far Gone: Why Twitter Probably Won’t Survive Another 10 Years

Today marks Twitter’s 10th birthday.

It seemed like just yesterday that we learned it was in fact possible to land a plane on the Hudson River. Or that the world gained a new language: hashtag. Or that we finally had a platform for turning the tragedy and turmoil of others into something more self-serving.

Indeed, like any 10-year-old’s life, it’s been a rollercoaster of triumphs and spills.


The bulk of that decade was defined by fascinating examples of how the microblogging service revolutionized the way we share and consume information in real-time. Every few months a major event would play out on Twitter that introduced us to a new possibility of its agency, whether as a spur for mass protest during the Arab Spring, a live stream of highly confidential operations like the raid that killed the world’s most wanted terrorist, or as the go-to breaking news outlet for developing stories like the manhunt following the Boston Marathon bombing.

The prevailing mood around Twitter over the past few years, however, suggests that it’s fallen off. The buzz is gone, and almost every major publication has critically challenged its utility. It went from a “must-have” service to one that can be occasionally useful, and much of that can be attributed to its own undoing.

“Twitter can’t command the attention it used to – it is getting siphoned off by other services,” wrote The Atlantic in October of last year, noting how Facebook offers a richer way to consume news, WhatsApp capitalized on its advantage in emerging markets, and that Snapchat is what the kids are doing these days.

Five years ago Twitter was on solid ground in all these respects, a position it has squandered through a series of superfluous tweaks and lack of long-term vision. Now more than ever, the company’s top brass probably wishes they’d spent a little more time on a business plan.

Twitter’s user growth hit a wall last month for the first time since going public – it’s now do or die time for CEO and avant-garde food consumer Jack Dorsey.

But what can be done? The relationship between Twitter and its users is too mature to reconcile with gimmicks, but having waited until the plateau to act affords little time to sit idle. Twitter needs to make some urgent adjustments to reflect its users’ needs, not those of advertisers and celebrities, if it wants to survive the next 10 years.

Or even 10 months, for that matter.

Curbing abuse would be a great place to start. Many online platforms that host public discourse have enacted measures to reduce harassment by, and of, its users. The CBC, for example, recently announced it will ban anonymous comments to “encourage civil conversation.” Killing anonymity likely won’t solve the problem, and is hard to justify on the whole, but it’s clear that something needs to be done. When Twitter essentially turned a blind eye to the Gamergate harassment campaign that began in 2014, it showed that it simply wasn’t interested in doing that something. Or that it simply didn’t know what to do.

Probably both, actually.

“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” wrote former Twitter chief Dick Costolo at the beginning of last year. “We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.”

Since that internal memo was written, and Jack Dorsey took over as CEO, Twitter has ramped up its effort to eradicate the type of abuse that an excellent piece published in Medium called “the greatest challenge the web faces today… greater than censorship, regulation, or monetization.” It improved its blocking function, began letting users report abuse directed at others, and tripled the number of staff dedicated to responding to reports.

And yet the abuse continues.

Much like democracy lends space for Trump rallies, there are corners of Twitter where hate bigotry, racism, and sexism flourish with quasi-constitutional permission. Unless Twitter finds a magic way to solve the problem, it will have to accept the inevitable consequences of building something that lends a voice to literally everyone.

Actor Stephen Fry is just one example of the brain drain Costolo lamented about in his memo. Fry deactivated his Twitter account after being the subject of scornful Twitterati over a mild joke he made at the BAFTAs, explaining, “Twitter was in the early days a secret bathing-pool in a magical glade in an enchanted forest. But now the pool is stagnant. It is frothy with scum, clogged with weeds and littered with broken glass, sharp rocks and slimy rubbish.”

Let’s pick it up there, at slimy rubbish. Earlier this year Twitter rolled out a more algorithmic, Facebook-style feed that ordered tweets based on prominence as opposed to chronology. You know, like what Instagram is about to do. This arrangement favours popular tweets and sponsored content, so many users are greeted by ads and celebrity bullshit when they settle in for a Twitter sesh – not the kind of first impression you want to make.

To this point, a recent article about the state of media in the United States reads, “Journalism is media and media is a business. The upside of this is that it serves to align the product that media companies produce with the true interests of the public. The downside is that the true interests of the public are, for the most part, garbage,” which also perfectly captures what’s happened to Twitter.

What you’re left with is a wasteland of low-quality digital flotsam while more meaningful contributors and content are pushed out. In the fourth quarter of 2013, just months after Twitter retooled itself as a The Next Big Marketing Tool for Advertisers by introducing the ability to publish promoted content, it posted the lowest growth in active monthly Twitter users in over three years.

Twitter used to occupy a gap that was left by the public’s eroding confidence in news networks. Now, it reflects exactly the type of model those people wanted to get away from; one where a few powerful people at the top decide what makes it to the front page with a friendly reminder that the McRib is back at McDonald’s sprinkled in between.

What Twitter really fails to do, however – and this might be its most damning offence – is adequately fulfill our need for instant gratification. ‘Favouriting’ a Tweet just doesn’t make us feel all warm and important inside the way ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’ do on Facebook and Instagram (even if you now can heart something on Twitter). Millennials need traction, damn it, and Twitter is a slippery, dark vortex that doesn’t really give anything back.

Part of the problem is that everyone has something to say but no time to listen. Engagement on Twitter is incredibly low, and most people really don’t know how to be heard. It’s kind of like an episode of Jerry Springer – everyone’s invited on stage to make a bunch of noise at the same time, and when it’s all over, absolutely nothing was achieved. The way those poor saps question why they even drove out to Stanford, Connecticut in the first place is probably how a lot of rookie Twitter users feel after they live-tweeted their entire House of Cards binge and no one gave a shit about a single observation.

So what you essentially have is a digital town hall where you can be egged at any given moment by a pack of teens while you’re having an intellectual conversation by yourself and some guy that won’t stop trying to sell you free gym memberships. For someone trying to get the most out of their social life, that’s an incredibly uninviting environment.

Unfortunately for Dorsey and Co., their baby is too far gone. Incremental changes won’t be enough to enliven those who’ve become disenchanted by the platform, while drastic measures will amplify the polarization between Twitter veterans and newbies.

The options are to continue being a service that most people find kind of okay or to become something a few people might love at the expense of millions jumping ship – not an ideal future by any means.

Maybe Twitter should have hired Seinfeld to give their 10th birthday speech:

“Well, birthdays are merely symbolic of how another year has gone by and how little we’ve grown. No matter how desperate we are that someday a better self will emerge, with each flicker of the candles on the cake, we know it’s not to be, that for the rest of our sad, wretched, pathetic lives, this is who we are to the bitter end. Inevitably, irrevocably. Happy birthday? No such thing.”