Twitter enters its mid-life crisis2/3/2016
When a product fails to reach the revenue necessary to sustain itself, it’s a disappointment. It happens all the time with newspapers, bars, musical groups, films and web services. During the last year, the Internet has seen a rash of popular sites shuttered due to low earnings such as film news and analysis site The Dissolve, and the ESPN pop-culture property, Grantland. As shocking and unexpected as those shutdowns were for fans, it will be nothing compared to when Twitter shuts down.
In fairness, Twitter would have to perfectly thread the needle of disaster to cause a complete shutdown, but it’s nearly impossible to overcome the fact that 2015 was a terrible year for for the company. The publicly-traded social network saw its user growth grind to a virtual halt; it toyed with the prospect of ditching its iconic 140-character limit; and after luring its founder back by naming him lifetime CEO, four top executives jumped ship just this month, no longer believing in the vision of the service. That turmoil has resulted in a free-falling stock, and the entire tech community has been left wondering if the organization has a future.
As far-fetched as it sounds, social networks generally rise and fall as lemmings follow each other down the same path. MySpace famously fell the hardest, with Friendster biting the dust only years before. Even worse, once a network shows signs of failing, it tends to fall quickly and disappear without a trace. For evidence look no further than America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe — the original social networks. While AOL is still shuffling about in a few sad corners of the Internet, Prodigy and Compuserve died nearly a decade before Facebook rose to prominence, and only a handful of the faithful remember they existed. Besides becoming horrifically uncool, AOL, Friendster, MySpace and all the rest eventually died out because new services offered better versions of these pre-existing options.
For Twitter, the new-and-improved competitors are Instagram and SnapChat. Instagram offers the public sharing and networking while being fueled by the mega resources of Facebook. SnapChat offers networking but keeps all the communications private before quickly vanishing. Twitter, on the other hand, is very public and fits in with the old adage, “Once online, always online.” Mix that with being subject to antsy stockholders and being overrun with “sponsored content,” and Twitter is subject to the market prerogative of evolve or die.
This brings us back to Twitter’s 140-character post limit. Since its inception as a project communication tool, Twitter has required posts to be 140 characters or less. As fun as devoted users find that aspect, the Internet is overwhelmingly populated with technological neophytes who find it perplexing. While Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat have seen user growth skyrocket, Twitter seems to have hit a ceiling at 400 million. To break through this ceiling, Twitter is considering replacing its 140-character limit with 1,000 — a drastic idea that has drawn some to wonder if Twitter is abandoning its micro-posting, social network identity entirely for something more akin to a blog space provider.
Whatever Twitter plans to do to overcome its midlife crisis, it better act fast and correctly. Users don’t tend to wait around for web services to push through re-imaginings, and they certainly won’t stay if it loses the thing that makes it unique. Whether it’s a character restriction, a public network or just hashtags, if Twitter makes the wrong change, it could drop from 400 million users to none. CV
Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.