A Tale of Two Twitters
It was the fave of times, it was the heart of times, it was the age of polls, it was the age of moments.
However you look at it, Twitter is in a state of turmoil. On the business side, the social media service has been bleeding executives faster than the single-joke Emo Kylo Ren account gained followers.
This Monday, CEO Jack Dorsey announced—where else but in a tweet—that the company’s VP of engineering, VP of human resources, VP of global media, and senior VP of product have all “chosen to leave the company”—the latest in a long line of high-profile employees to jump ship.
From a user’s standpoint, the product is a confused mess. First, “hearts” replaced “favorites” last November. Then, in December, Twitter seemingly tried to trick users into discovering the Moments feature by switching its place on the top bar with the oft-used Notifications tab. There was revolt among the faithful and, of course, a Chrome extension to reverse the change.
The next month, Twitter announced that one of the defining features of the platform—the 140-character limit—could change to allow tweets as long as 10,000 characters. Somewhere along the way, Polls started showing up on your timeline, too, after being introduced last October.
Behind both of these messes is a single problem: Try as it might, Twitter can’t seem to attract new users fast enough. In 2015, the platform’s growth slowed, hitting a wall just above 300 million monthly active users. In the social media game where your value is determined not just by how many users you have but by your ability to gain more, 4 million newcomers in one quarter is just not good enough to stay afloat.
For journalists and media types who spend too much time scrolling through columns on TweetDeck anyway—present company included—it’s a situation ripe for think pieces about quitting Twitter, the death of Twitter, or the harassment that some suspect is stymying the growth of the platform.
But whatever troubles Twitter has on the surface, there’s an underlying structural issue at stake: There isn’t one Twitter, there are two Twitters, and neither of them is the Twitter that Twitter wants to be or needs to be in order to grow.
On one hand, there is Entertainment Twitter, the land where comedians try out new material; where teens refer to celebrities as “mom” and “dad”; where beefs between celebrities and politicians are cheered on with cries of “slay queen”; where Wiz Khalifa, Kanye West, and Amber Rose duke it out with tweet storms and sexual insults; where everyone’s waiting to see what Martin Shkreli will say next to Ghostface Killah. This is Twitter as spectacle, a gladiator’s arena in which we are peasants who scroll past ads to keep watching millionaires fight each other.
On the other, there is Media Twitter, an endless, navel-gazing churn of headlines, scoops, and takes of varying temperatures. This is the Twitter for those with access to information and for those who fancy themselves informed. It’s an awful place, and all journalists know it, but it continues because we have no choice but to participate.
As The Daily Beast’s Lizzie Crocker wrote of the recent “quit Twitter” trend: “Unless we want to become ice fishermen in Alaska, leaving the Internet forever is a pipe dream.” At its best, Media Twitter is a place where vital stories can reach a mass audience before most TV news anchors can even get out of hair and makeup. At its worst, it’s a place where people try to argue, in earnest, that spooning is sexist.
Like any binary scheme, this one’s drastically oversimplified and there are exceptions, most notably Black Twitter, which has long used the service in a dynamic, multi-faceted way as a social tool, political platform, and intellectual meeting ground. It’s also a kingmaker for diverse TV shows like How to Get Away with Murder and Empire. Suffice it to say, if everyone on Twitter were as engaged as Black Twitter, Jack Dorsey would be a happy CEO.
To break through its ceiling of roughly 320 million users and to show advertisers the kind of numbers that warrants checks, Twitter would have to be a place where people come not just to watch or stay informed, but to be. But Twitter is a platform built on asymmetry and interpersonal interactions. You have followers, not friends. You don’t share, you retweet.
That’s part of why its current growing pains feel so alien. When Twitter announced in a video last November that it was replacing the star icon with hearts, it came across a lot like, well, this popular GIF of a skateboard-toting Steve Buscemi saying, “How do you do, fellow kids?” The release video tried to guide us into using hearts to send each other messages like “adorbs,” “aww,” “stay strong,” and “hugs.”
“Show how you feel without missing a beat,” it suggested.
It was hilarious. The affective range of Twitter seems to be limited to amusement, mourning, and anger, both righteous and otherwise. The idea that “adorbs” and “aww” are things one regularly feels on Twitter—outside of looking at the occasional photo of a puppy—was so clearly an aspirational move on Twitter’s part, and not a reflection of how people were using the service. Watching that Twitter hearts video was like watching Pinocchio wish he were a real boy.
There are social media platforms where such a product would feel more natural.
Facebook dominates in monthly users—a full 71 percent of online adults in the U.S. use it, according to Pew—because we live and, yes, sometimes even feel on it. Most of us don’t really live on Twitter, we come to it for celebrity gossip, joke consumption, self-promotion, or breaking news updates and we leave. We pay a visit to one or both of the Two Twitters and then go home—to Facebook. Where people still unironically say things to each other like “stay strong,” “aww,” and “hugs.”
Facebook is now rolling out new emoji-esque Reactions like “sad,” “angry,” “haha,” and “love,” in addition to the “Like” button and, while that’s a big change, it doesn’t seem at odds with the nature of the service. On the other side of the social media aisle, emotional expression comes about as naturally to Twitter as breakdancing does to Robocop.
And besides, most of the things that happen on Entertainment and Media Twitter eventually make it to Facebook anyway. As long as you don’t crave the adrenaline rush of breaking news, you will get a general sense of what’s going on in the world—and what your favorite celebrities are up to—if you scroll through your feed long enough.
Twitter is also struggling to stay competitive among the generation that would even utter a word like “adorbs.” Instagram and Snapchat both have a higher percentage of users ages 18 to 24—23 and 45 percent, respectively—than Twitter’s 19 percent, according to comScore data. This is, in part, because Instagram and Snapchat seamlessly combine the appeal of Entertainment Twitter—having a direct window into the lives of the rich and famous—with the kind of intensely personal expression that seems so ill-fitted for Twitter.
Most importantly, these other social media services aren’t hopelessly fragmented in the way that Twitter is. There’s one Facebook experience for everyone and, sure, it may look like a jumbled mess of multi-generational political arguments, family photos, news articles, and viral videos, but that’s what Facebook is and it’s come to feel strangely cohesive. On Instagram, there’s a certain unifying logic between seeing what Khloe Kardashian is wearing to brunch and posting a filtered photo of your frittata.
Not so with Twitter, where celebrities unleash candid photos on their fans, journalists scream takes like this one into the void, and everyone else is not quite sure why they use it except that their one journalist friend told them to make an account.
The big problem facing the struggling social media giant is that neither of the Two Twitters have things to offer that most users can’t get elsewhere. And perhaps the total number of people who need those things with the level of immediacy that Twitter offers is finite: 320 million and very few more.
Entertainment Twitter is where we go for drama. Media Twitter is where we go for news. To grow and therefore survive, Twitter would need to keep these two offerings on tap, while also gluing them together with something that has always eluded it: the human touch. It would have to feel more like one Twitter, not two.