Company / division: Twitter
Unlike last week’s changes, which were mostly about changes in the user interface of non-abusive users, this change is directed specifically at limiting the reach of abusive users, which feels like a more important and urgent priority. The limits are only temporary – no-one is getting kicked off the platform for this abusive behavior, merely having their reach limited for 12 hours or so in the cases so far. I wonder if – by analogy to an iPhone lock screen – the lockout period will be longer after each offense until eventually the user is banned; that’s something Twitter doesn’t seem to have commented on yet publicly. But it’s also not clear that there’s an appeal mechanism, which is a bit worrying because Facebook, Twitter, and others have sometimes blocked innocuous users either by mistake or through mis-application (or over-zealous application) of policy. I’m all for Twitter cracking down on abuse – it should be a key priority – but it needs to happen in a way that’s transparent and appealable. So there’s definitely progress here, but we still need more.
Twitter’s results this morning were a great illustration of the quandary Twitter presents: on the one hand, it’s never been more important or relevant in the world, and on the other it just doesn’t seem to be able to turn that into meaningful user growth, revenue growth, or profitability. Revenues were actually down year on year, especially in the US, while losses also increased due partly to restructuring costs. Monthly user growth was anemic again, while daily user growth accelerated, though Twitter bafflingly continues to refuse to provide actual DAU numbers (it’s likely that they’re well under half of its MAU number of 319 million, so around 150 million). Meanwhile, Twitter is still talking about exactly the same shortcomings in its ad product around measurement, targeting, delivering ROI, and creative capabilities that it’s been talking about for ages now. And it sounds like it’s rethinking a number of its direct response ad formats and may kill off some that are actually delivering revenue because they’re too resource-intensive. At this point in Twitter’s history (almost 11 years in) and Jack Dorsey’s second tenure (a year and a half in), the company really shouldn’t be about to undergo yet another major reset in its strategy. In the meantime, Twitter management is asking investors to take it on trust that they can convince advertisers that the underlying growth in DAUs and impressions means they should spend more money on Twitter. We’re certainly due for at least one more really shaky quarter, but there’s a good chance we won’t see meaningful financial progress in 2017 at all. I’ve done a slightly more in-depth take at Beyond Devices here.
via Twitter (PDF)
This is one of those times when the word “finally” seems the apt response. Twitter has denied and stalled its way around the abuse issue, and never seems to have taken it nearly seriously enough, but the promise last week that it was finally ready to start moving faster seems to be bearing at least some fruit. And as I said last week, it’s presumably not a coincidence that Twitter’s Q4 results are out on Thursday – I’m sure the company would like to defuse the abuse issue a little and focus on other things on its earnings call. The changes announced today are positive, but I see at least two flaws: firstly, there’s no real transparency over the rules used to designate tweets or replies as either unsafe or “less relevant”. I understand the desire not to spell out exactly what filters are used to avoid malefactors gaming the system, but this is likely to trigger lots of complaining when an opaque algorithm gets things wrong. Secondly, and in a bigger picture sense, this is all still about presentation and not about actually policing the platform for true abuse – so many reports of abuse and harassment have gone entirely unheeded by Twitter, and none of this will address that fundamental issue.
Periscope CEO Kayvon Beykpour is now running all of Twitter’s live video products- Recode (Feb 6, 2017)
Live video is a big focus for Twitter, arguably to the exclusion of almost any other major innovation in the core product, and so it makes sense that it has a leader who reports directly to Jack Dorsey. But Twitter has always had two approaches to live video: Periscope, the original play, is a standalone app focused on user-generated content, and then there are all Twitter’s live video partnerships with existing content owners like the NFL and Bloomberg. It makes sense to start bringing these products together under a single leadership to make sure they work together effectively, but I think it’s also quite possible that we start to see Periscope integrated more into the core app and lose some of its identity as a separate product. Hopefully this will also free up Keith Coleman, who runs product at Twitter, to focus on all the other things that need fixing.
Last week, Recode reported that several big tech companies were drafting a letter to the Trump administration on immigration, though I still can’t find confirmation that this letter has actually been sent. However, those tech companies and many others have now filed an official friend of the court brief in the lawsuit being brought against the administration by the states of Minnesota and Washington. This steps things up a notch, formally putting the 97 companies behind the brief on the other side of a court case from the administration. As with the early condemnations of the executive orders just over a week ago, Amazon is notable by its absence, as is Tesla (whose CEO Elon Musk has continued to sit on the advisory council Uber CEO Travis Kalanick vacated last week). Tesla’s absence is consistent with Musk’s overall stated strategy of trying to bring change from within, but Amazon’s absence may simply be due to the fact that it weighed in on the case separately earlier in the process (though Microsoft has participated at both stages).
Update: this tweet explains that Amazon was asked not to sign the amicus brief because it was a witness in the original case.
One of the most baffling aspects of Twitter’s inertia over the past couple of years has been its refusal to take the issue of abuse and harassment on the platform seriously. This late-night tweet storm by the company’s VP of Engineering suddenly revealed that Twitter had decided to take the issue much more seriously and move much more quickly to resolve it (“days and hours not weeks and months”). When essentially everyone outside Twitter HQ has recognized that this was an issue that needed swift resolution for years now, why did it take Twitter so long, and what has changed now? One answer is that Twitter’s earnings are coming up next week, and making a strong statement about this now helps neutralize awkward questions about it then, even if Twitter hasn’t announced anything more concrete. Another is that Twitter is responding to the thorny questions about President Trump’s usage of Twitter and calls for him to be booted off the service by dealing with abuse more broadly. And perhaps some people at Twitter that have wanted to move faster on this issue but been blocked by Jack Dorsey or others finally managed to break through whatever barriers existed. Regardless, it’s good news assuming some meaningful change does come out of all this, but it still says nothing good about Twitter’s internal culture that it took this long to get to this point.
Silicon Valley’s responses to Trump’s immigration executive orders, from strongest to weakest – The Verge (Jan 28, 2017)
This is a good summary of the responses from the tech industry so far to President Trump’s executive orders on immigration from Friday. It also does a nice job sorting the responses by strength – there’s quite a range in the responses, from those focusing narrowly on the practical impacts on employees of each company to those issuing broader moral condemnations of the policy. This certainly won’t be the last we hear on this topic. It’s notable that as of right now Amazon is one of the major holdouts among the big consumer tech companies.
via The Verge
Twitter replaces the Moments tab with Explore – The Verge (Jan 26, 2017)
After lots of Facebook news, it’s finally Twitter’s turn to announce a new feature, in this case an Explore tab which replaces but also subsumes Moments. This will allow trending topics and other content discovery features to sit alongside Moments in the interface, which makes a lot of sense. Moments have done fairly well at Twitter, but I suspect there have also been lots of users who never used it and were frustrated that it took up a tab in the interface, and often had an annoying little blue dot indicating there was unviewed content too. That’s not to say all those users will instantly use the Explore tab – I never look at Trending topics on Twitter, and imagine many other users are the same. But for new users or those that haven’t spent the time finding the right mix of accounts to follow, the feature can be a useful starting point for finding interesting content. Now, Twitter just needs to do a better job with the on boarding process, which is still too account centric and not topic-focused enough. It’s also worth noting, as this Mashable post does, that live video will be prominently featured at the top of the Explore tab when available.
I’ve had lots of calls from reporters ever since the election about whether Donald Trump was going to be the thing that finally turned Twitter around, and I’ve said no every time, for several reasons. Firstly, he’s far from the most followed account on Twitter – the first time I was asked this question, he was only number 100 on the list of accounts with the most followers, and though he’s risen the ranks since then, there are still many above him. Secondly, Twitter’s biggest challenge is that even when it’s in the news, most people who see the news won’t see it on Twitter but on TV, on news sites, or even in the newspaper, meaning that Twitter doesn’t monetize the vast majority of the attention it receives. Thirdly, lots of advertisers have decidedly mixed feelings about wanting to associate their brand with a Trump-led resurgence in interest in Twitter, and Twitter employees have had similar reservations. This article covers some of that, but suggests that interest in Twitter (though not spending) among advertisers has risen since the election. I’m still very skeptical that we’re going to see any kind of meaningful bump for Twitter off the back of all this.
Twitter canceled its annual developer conference, Flight, back in October, and I posited at the time that this would send a strong message to developers working with Twitter, though I got pushback from some people at Twitter. Now, Twitter is selling its developer tools (collectively known as Fabric) to Google, rather validating my initial take on the Flight cancelation (no pun intended). This is certainly a result of Twitter’s narrower focus going forward on user-facing, live content including video, but it reinforces the sense that Twitter has really messed around with developers over its history. Developers will still be able to create and run apps for Twitter, but Fabric was a big part of Twitter’s developer toolset and a major focus of those Flight conferences in the past. Lots of those tools, though, had little to do with the core Twitter product, so there’s definitely some logic in selling it a company – Google – which is committed to providing a broad set of generic tools to developers.
This isn’t news per se – it was announced some time ago. But the shutdown is notable for coming in the midst of another big video push by Twitter, around live video. Vine was the hot thing back in 2012, but Twitter’s focus has become so much narrower in the past few months that it now doesn’t fit and must be discarded. That’s both sad and odd, because Vine had its legion of fans, it was particularly well suited to basketball highlights, and it made a few stars of its own. But neither those stars or Twitter made money directly from Vine, the experience was always very separate from the core Twitter app, and Twitter’s focus is now elsewhere. It remains to be seen, though, whether Twitter will actually be better served by offering the same live video available elsewhere rather than sticking with one of its most unique forms of content.
Twitter CMO Leslie Berland spoke at CES about what Twitter is doing to grow its business, and it gets at the root of Twitter’s current problems. The good news is that Twitter seems to have a decent understanding of why it’s stuck when it comes to user growth – people don’t know what Twitter is for, they think it’s a social network, and they think they have to tweet themselves to get value out of it. The problem is that Twitter hasn’t done very much yet to address these three issues effectively, and you could argue that’s Berland’s job now, to the extent that marketing includes product. But of course Twitter has famously had separate heads of product, and Jack Dorsey himself seems to want a strong role in that domain too, which may be part of the problem (that and the inability to retain those heads of product).
Inside Twitter, employees reckon with Trump – The Verge (Jan 12, 2017)
Twitter is probably the tech company that has the most complex relationship with Donald Trump as a candidate and now as president-elect. On the one hand, like many Silicon Valley people, Twitter employees seem largely to be horrified by Trump, but on the other he’s used their product more effectively than any candidate in history, and continues to use it regularly as he prepares to assume the office of the presidency. This piece does a nice job highlighting these conflicts, and the relative powerlessness of anyone at Twitter to resolve them.
This is a fantastic post about how tech companies hide behind that identity, and shouldn’t. Facebook is the obvious example that springs to mind, and does seem to be coming around on this point, but it applies to others too. Many tech companies abdicate responsibility, because responsibility means an imperative to act and self-examine, and most importantly to question the assumption tech is always a force for good. We need more of that questioning in 2017.
Jack Dorsey sought user input on what Twitter needs to do next today through Twitter itself, and one of the big requests was an editing feature, which it appears he’s inclined to support. He also conceded the company needed to do more on harassment, which continues to be a big turnoff for potential users. And yet I suspect the changes Twitter needs to make most won’t be suggested by existing users because they relate to on-boarding and capturing a new slice of users that don’t currently see value in Twitter or find it too hard to use.
Check out live 360 video on Twitter | Twitter Blogs (Dec 28, 2016)
360 video has been mostly the province of Facebook when it comes to social networks, but Twitter (and Periscope) is now getting in on the action too. It obviously lends itself well to VR consumption too, though the focus for now is consumption through traditional channels. At a time when the things I feel Twitter most needs to do remain undone, it nonetheless keeps releasing new features, especially ones focused on live and video. I’m not sure how much this will move the needle as far as monetization or user growth, however.
Twitter Embraces Its Role As A Media Company – BuzzFeed News (Dec 28, 2016)
Facebook has notoriously struggled with its identity, resisting until very recently the temptation to call itself a media company, and with good reason – media companies command far lower valuations than tech ones. But Twitter seems to be embracing its future as a media player, with a focus on news (or “live”) and video. This piece cites several new hires the company is planning to make as evidence of this shift in strategy and perhaps identity.
Facebook and not Twitter has mostly been in the news for misstating its metrics, but it’s clear that the latter isn’t immune. Although Facebook’s confessions have been embarrassing, it hasn’t had to refund advertisers, but it appears Twitter has, though only over a brief period due to a technical glitch.
This is definitely part of the Twitter is Stuck narrative, one that I have argued for myself. Twitter seems unable to retain senior executives, and late 2016 saw a real exodus from management ranks. I suspect 2017 will make or break Jack Dorsey as CEO – the paradox here is that he seems to want to control product, but is also running two companies at once, leaving him unable to dedicate enough time to the project while also squeezing out those who could devote the appropriate resources to the job.