Company / division: Twitter
Following the Rose McGowan account suspension I mentioned in an item yesterday, a number of prominent women on Twitter have organized a boycott of the platform which is taking place today (Friday). I’m linking below to an item from USA Today which covered the boycott as it being organized, but the challenge today is knowing how effective the boycott has been, because by definition it’s about silence rather than speaking out. Other women, meanwhile, have chosen to speak out about the issues today instead, which makes for a more immediately visible form of protest (Update: this New York Times piece summarizes the different views being expressed on this question). One would hope that these protests, whatever their form, would prompt Twitter to look more seriously at the serious issues being debated, but its lack of past progress on this issue makes me skeptical that that will happen.
via USA Today
Twitter has once again starkly illustrated its inconsistency in policing abuse, by temporarily suspending the account of actress Rose McGowan over an alleged breach of its rules, while continuing to allow much more egregious abuses to go unchecked. In this case, Twitter claims that McGowan included someone’s personal phone number in one of her tweets, and that it reinstated her account once she deleted the offending tweet, but as usual there was a lack of transparency on Twitter’s part until there was a media outcry, which has been the repeated pattern. The great irony was that McGowan was speaking up about her own and others’ abuse at the hands of Harvey Weinstein and others, while many women who are abused on Twitter’s platform itself find their reports of abuse ignored or dismissed. Twitter desperately needs to both improve its consistency in policing actual abuse on its platform and to communicate more openly about how it enforces the rules, because this situation just continues to get worse.
Twitter Announces It’s Working on a Bookmarking Tool (Oct 10, 2017)
Several Twitter employees tweeted on Monday evening about a new feature the company is working on, which would allow users to bookmark tweets. This is a fix for the ambiguity of what started out as the “favorite” feature (denoted by a star) but morphed into a “like” feature symbolized by a heart – while some users have undoubtedly used it for bookmarking, it connotes approval of the tweet as well, which can send the wrong signals. Why Twitter feels the need to test this feature, which seems to work perfectly fine in the screenshots the employees shared, is beyond me – it feels like Twitter could have just pushed this feature out without testing it broadly, especially because it doesn’t break anything connected to the way Twitter works today and merely adds value. That’s indicative of the slow speed with which Twitter has fixed basic issues with the service over the last several years. More importantly, though, as with the recent change to the character limit (also still in testing), it still feels like Twitter is tinkering around the edges rather than fundamentally changing the experience in ways that would make it more accessible, especially to new or casual users.
Update: later in the day, Twitter also announced another feature, also covered by BuzzFeed here. This one feels much better aligned with what Twitter really needs to be working on in terms of making the site more usable for those who haven’t spent ages curating feeds, and it appears to be built on work the company previously did for its live video events. However, it’s still event-based and therefore somewhat limited – it doesn’t, for example, allow people to follow topics of ongoing interest.
Facebook, Google, and Twitter Struggle to Contain Fake News in the Wake of Las Vegas Shooting (Oct 3, 2017)
I had this in my list of items to cover yesterday but it was a busy day for other news and I’d already covered a couple of Facebook stories, so I decided to hold it over to today given that it was likely to continue to be newsworthy. This BuzzFeed piece does a good job rounding up some of the issues with Facebook, Google, and Twitter properties in the wake of the awful shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night. Each of these platforms struggled in some way to filter fake news and uninformed speculation from accurate, reliable, news reporting in the wake of the shooting. Each eventually responded to the issue and fixed things, but not before many people saw (and reported on) some of the early misleading results. And it does feel as though some of the issues they saw were easily avoidable by limiting which sites might be considered legitimate sources of news ahead of time, or at the very least requiring new sites claiming to break news to pass some sort of human review before being cited. Normally, I’d say this would blow over quickly and wouldn’t matter that much, but in the current political context around Facebook, Google, and so on, it’ll probably take on broader meaning.
Following Facebook’s public statement about Russian interference in the US elections last week, Twitter has now made a similar statement addressing both that specific issue and broader issues around political meddling, the use of bots on Twitter, and spam and other misuses of its platform. It appears Twitter found some of the same Russian-linked accounts which bought ads on Facebook in 2016 on its own platform, though they didn’t buy ads, while government-linked news outlet Russia Today bought over $200,000 worth of ads in 2016 including some that related directly to elections. Bots continue to be a big problem on Twitter, though one the company claims it’s getting better at managing. Twitter’s head of public policy spoke to the Senate committee investigating Russian influence this morning, and Twitter has promised to disclose more about these activities going forward as well as supporting efforts to increase regulation and transparency around election advertising, something Facebook has also said it supports. In the grand scheme of things, the actual activity discovered and reported by both platforms from an ad spending perspective continues to be very small, but that it’s happened at all in the overall context of an increasingly clear pattern of election manipulation by the Russian government and its surrogates is obviously concerning.
Update: Recode reports that at least one Senator, Democrat Mark Warner, says that Twitter’s presentation before his committee today was inadequate, lacking in detail, and seemed overly derivative based on Facebook’s investigation rather than its own work (the latter goes against the sense you get from reading Twitter’s own post on this, for what it’s worth).
Twitter has just made the surprise announcement that it’s testing expanding the 140-character limit that’s characterized the service from its inception to 280 characters in all languages except Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, which make far more efficient use of characters. Various people have suggested expanding the Twitter limit over time as a way to make the service more useful and less frustrating, but the 140-character limit has been a defining feature, forcing brevity and making streams of tweets very easy to consume. Even just looking at the first few 280-character tweets I’ve seen from Twitter executives has broken up my feed and forced a mental shift in my consumption. There’s something magical about the 140 character limit which makes the vast majority of tweets inherently glanceable in a way a 280 character tweet never will be. I continue to maintain that expanding the character limit and other superficial changes are peripheral to the real changes Twitter needs to make to go more mainstream – those changes instead need to revolve around getting beyond the account-by-account following model. This is a bold step for Twitter (albeit one still in testing) but it feels like it misses the mark in terms of making Twitter more useful. I’d argue that if removing constraints was the focus, Twitter should have found a way to attach longer blocks of text to tweets natively instead – that would have replaced the many screenshots of text people post, which aren’t searchable or readable by accessibility software, without breaking the fundamental model. Personally, I’m not a fan, but more importantly, I’m skeptical this will actually improve the Twitter experience in ways which lead to more usage and most importantly more users, which continues to be one of Twitter’s biggest challenges.
Twitter Sells Enough Ads to Launch All Planned Live TV Shows (Sep 25, 2017)
It certainly wasn’t clear at the time Twitter made its big blitz of announcements around its live TV plans that some of the shows weren’t guaranteed to air if they didn’t get sufficient ad backing, but now that they have that backing, Twitter is apparently trumpeting that fact. Since many of the shows Twitter is hosting are existing properties which will come with ads from the original sources, Twitter likely didn’t have to sell that many ad slots itself in many cases. There certainly are some unique-to-Twitter shows, so it’s impressive that it’s sold enough ads on those too, but in many cases I’m guessing that spend is experimental – no-one really knows what kind of audiences most of these shows will attract, and the level of spending involved is likely small enough to fit into niche budgets (as Snapchat long did). The big question is whether, following the first few months of this experiment, those advertisers want to re-up and commit to additional shows and seasons. That will depend largely on a combination of viewership and engagement with the ads viewers see. We don’t have many figures for individual Twitter shows to go by, but we do know that just 55 million or 17% of monthly active users spent any time watching any live video on Twitter in Q2 of this year, so Twitter and its advertisers are clearly hoping that that translates into more committed audiences for specific shows in order to justify continued investment.
Twitter is Testing a Native Lite App in the Philippines (Sep 25, 2017)
Twitter launched Twitter Lite as a progressive web app in April with a view to providing a better option for emerging markets users relative to its native app. In writing about that news, I said that Twitter’s PWA was nice validation for Google’s push of these web apps, but that validation takes a bit of a knock from the fact that Twitter is reportedly testing a native app version of Twitter Lite in the Philippines. There’s no guarantee it gets launched broadly, but it would be further evidence that, for all Google’s eagerness to promote web apps alongside (or even instead of) native apps, the latter still dominate usage and the channels major companies still use to make their services available. I also said in that original piece that Twitter could benefit from the same kinds of benefits as Facebook by pursuing a Lite strategy, but although a Twitter product exec said a while back that Lite was driving big growth in India, the company’s Q2 results showed basically no evidence of that growth. One of Twitter’s biggest problems globally continues to be its inability to create a value proposition that appeals to new users, and whereas Facebook’s Lite app accelerated what was already very strong growth, Twitter’s app can’t solve that fundamental issue.
This AdAge report on BuzzFeed’s coming Twitter live morning show is long on facts and short on analysis but nonetheless provides some interesting detail. It sounds like the show will be roughly an hour long and focused on covering the day’s news in a fairly lightweight and Twitter-centric way, and will feature four two-minute ad breaks featuring 30-second commercials. Because it’s BuzzFeed there will also be some sponsored editorial content within episodes, and because it’s Twitter some of the ads and related content will also be parceled up as shorter-form content for the platform. This is all, of course, part of Twitter’s broad expansion into live video with many different partners, and a good test of whether people actually have the time and inclination to watch something like this on Twitter, which I suspect for most people is something they dip in and out of rather than something they have permanently “on” in the way they might do with Twitter. The time slot reference in the article is vague – it merely says 10am, but doesn’t state which time zone that refers to, while earlier articles had suggested an 8am slot, which would put it extremely early in western time zones. 10am ET would certainly make more sense, catching at least some of the country in the pre-work slot when they’re more likely to be able to watch a live show than when they get to work.
A key part of the Advertising Sustainability narrative on the site is the issue of two companies’ dominance of online advertising in the US and to a lesser extent other western markets. New data from eMarketer is a useful checkpoint in measuring that dominance – it says that the two companies will suck up 63% of US online ad spend in 2017, an increase from its earlier forecast of 60%. Microsoft comes in third place way behind the top two, with Verizon in fourth for now and Amazon projected to take its place over the next couple of years. Google and Facebook’s dominance is neither surprise nor mystery at this point – the former has the unique combination of timeliness and relevance that search offers, while the latter has created the most powerful combination of audience and native advertising, dominating their respective categories and leaving the dregs for smaller competitors and less effective forms of advertising. Importantly, though, eMarketer doesn’t see the two companies’ share rising dramatically over the next couple of years – it projects just 68% share in 2019, meaning that other companies will still capture nearly a third of the market, and their dollar share of the total will actually rise since the market is still growing rapidly. eMarketer’s blog post with all the numbers is here.
Fox and Twitter Partner Around New and Returning Shows (Sep 20, 2017)
Fox Television and Twitter have announced a partnership around new and returning shows, which will see some episodes as well as new content broadcast through Twitter’s live video platform. Empire, one of the most popular shows on broadcast TV, will have a live pre-show featuring interviews and other material broadcast live on Twitter, while another returning show, The Mick, will have a mini-marathon broadcast on Twitter, and new show Ghosted will have its premiere episode broadcast live on Twitter four nights running this week. It’s an interesting attempt to create buzz and additional audiences on Twitter around shows which are currently watched almost entirely through traditional channels and more established streaming services, and will serve as a good experiment for both companies. In a world where much of viewing is moving on-demand, forcing live streaming feels a little contrived, and I’m curious to see how viewers respond to that. The Mick marathon will be shown fairly late in the evening, while Ghosted will debut in an early evening slot on Twitter, presumably to avoid conflicting with Fox’s own primetime lineup, though the Ghosted premiere it precedes the network premiere by a week and a half. We’re going to see lots more of this kind of experimentation over the next little while, and I’m guessing much of it will fall flat, but no doubt some useful concepts will come out of it, and the fan-type shows like the one Fox and Twitter are building around Empire seem the likeliest to take off, both because they’re exclusive to the platform and because other networks have already run these successfully – notably AMC’s Talking Dead.
Twitter has published its latest Transparency Report, which covers the first half of 2017 and mostly relates to requests for intervention in content posted on Twitter by government entities. Amongst the other data in there, though, Twitter has also reported specific numbers on the accounts removed from the service over promotion of terrorism, a total that has reached over 900,000 accounts since August 2015. Importantly, the vast majority of those accounts were taken down not because of any report by a government agency but because Twitter’s own in-house tools flagged the accounts, often before they even began tweeting. That represents good progress over the last couple of years in this particular area, but Twitter remains poor in policing abuse in general on its site, as several reports from BuzzFeed and other news outlets have shown. In relation to that issue, it’s notable that “abusive behavior” is the category of government-reported content with by far the lowest action rate from Twitter of all those it reports at just 12% of reports acted on, versus 40% for copyright issues, 63% for trademark infringement, and 92% for promotion of terrorism. That may in part be because government representatives often have thin skins and those opposing them may be considered by Twitter to be in need of special free speech protections, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that 12% was representative of the proportion of overall abuse reports that get acted on by Twitter.
Twitter Hires Sriram Krishnan as Senior Director of Product (Sep 19, 2017)
Sriram Krishnan, who has served as an ad exec at Facebook and Snapchat, is to join twitter as Senior Director Product in October. Product roles at Twitter have been notoriously hard to fill (and keep filled) with many executives filing in and out of those jobs, but Twitter has had a little more stability there lately and has more of a structure around the organization at this point too. Krishnan won’t run product overall but will be a couple of tiers down in the organization, working under Kevin Coleman, who in turns reports to Ed Ho, who reports to Jack Dorsey. He seems to be widely admired in the industry, and his hiring is being seen as something of a coup for Twitter and a sign that it’s still able to attract top talent despite its growth struggles. It certainly needs help on the product side, and hopefully Krishnan will bring a new perspective and a greater willingness to take bold steps instead of merely tinkering around the edges as Twitter has done for the past several years.
Update: also in Twitter executive news today, it’s hired former Google CFO Patrick Pichette as a board member, and he’ll start in December. As with a number of past Twitter board hires, he’s basically never tweeted, something Twitter seems to be OK with (and I’d argue that’s OK in a role like this, that is likely more about financial oversight than product insight).
Yesterday, Facebook announced a deal with Stadium to provide sports video content, and today Twitter made a very similar announcement. Stadium is a recently launched sports network which leverages Sinclair’s broadcasting infrastructure and streaming capabilities from Silver Chalice (a subsidiary of the Chicago White Sox organization) and in-studio talent from 120 Sports. Its sports rights are mostly for second-tier conferences, so there won’t be many high-profile games available, and essentially all the content is also available for free on Stadium’s own website and where broadcast. So there’s no exclusivity and little real value here and this is mostly about adding tonnage of live video on two platforms which are still in the early stages of that effort. The challenge in sports, of course, continues to be that the major rights are sewn up for years by big names from the TV industry, with rare exceptions like Thursday Night Football’s digital rights offering the only real opportunities to snag them in the near term. And yet sports is about the only must-have category of live TV left among these platform’s core audiences, leaving them in this awkward position of adding lots of marginal content just to check a sports box.
Twitter Finally Adds Curation by Topic, But It’s Flawed (Aug 16, 2017)
Twitter has finally added curation by topic, but only as part of its Explore tab, and the implementation seems to be pretty flawed. I argued that Twitter needed to get beyond its account-centric model to enable further growth in a piece written a year ago this week, so I welcome the move in principle. But the topic-based feeds are buried behind the search button, and the actual content in the various feeds feels unfocused and often irrelevant. More to the point, this topic-based approach needs to be part of the on boarding experience for Twitter, which has remained far too account-centric and therefore overwhelming for new users, something I documented here a few months back. So this is a step in the right direction, but needs to go further.
At the time I’m writing this, Twitter stock is off 13% after it reported another set of poor earnings. It failed to grow global monthly active users at all in the quarter (US users actually shrank, offset by modest growth elsewhere), daily active user growth shrank from 14% in Q1 to 12% in Q2, and revenue was down 5% year on year, the second straight quarter of overall revenue declines. Importantly, all of this happened in a quarter when Twitter released a big redesign of its apps and sites and launched its Lite product in India, both of which should have driven good growth if effective. The contrast with Facebook’s results last night couldn’t be starker, with the two companies moving in seemingly opposite directions. The one thing they have in common is that both are working to convince advertisers of the value of spending money on their platforms, but Facebook is doing so from a position of strength, trying to win more TV ad dollars with its targeting and attribution features, while Twitter is mostly still trying to convince advertisers that it has a world-class ad platform at all. In theory, it’s making progress behind the scenes with its ad offerings, and users are responding positively to its product changes too, as evidenced by the fact that DAUs have grown quite a bit faster than MAUs over the past year. But the company also suggested on today’s earnings call that DAUs as a percentage of MAUs haven’t shifted much from three years ago, when that ratio was below 50% in its top markets. The picture that’s emerging here is one of a smaller number – perhaps around 160 million – highly engaged users (likely including most of the bots on the platform) and a constantly cycling second 160-170 million users coming onto and then rapidly leaving the platform as they fail to find value in it, something I first hinted at in this piece last October. Twitter would arguably be best served by emulating Snap’s reporting and ditching MAUs in favor of DAUs, then focusing on growing that number, which it seems to be doing more successfully. And yet it’s bafflingly reluctant to report DAUs directly, probably because that would be a concession that it’s reaching a much smaller engaged audience than it likes to claim. Note that just 17% of its MAUs watched any live videos last quarter, for example. It’s getting tougher and tougher to believe that Twitter is ever going to outgrow its current stagnation.
via Twitter (PDF)
Twitter has a blog post up and apparently also spoke to reporters about its efforts to curb abuse and harassment on the platform. The company released data about the improvements it’s made over the past year and the positive effects it says these are having, such as acting on ten times as many abusive accounts, removing twice the number of repeat offenders, and so on. But there’s nothing in the new data or the blog post about why so many reports still get dealt with as false positives, as reported by BuzzFeed earlier in the week. And there’s no real transparency about how the decisions are made, by whom, or what exactly the guidelines are. Twitter clearly is making progress here – the numbers show that – but the fact that BuzzFeed had no trouble quickly finding cases where it’s still falling short suggests it’s far from done here yet. And though Twitter is clearly taking the problem more seriously today than it was even six months ago, before this current effort began, it’s still too often defensive and closed rather than transparent and honest in talking about why abuse and harassment are still such issues. At root, it feels like Twitter is still erring too much on the side of maximum freedom of speech rather than on the side of protecting users from abuse, while much behavior by Twitter users is utterly unacceptable and yet likely goes unreported simply because it’s not directed at a specific individual.