Is Twitter a digital 140-character dead letter? Maybe not yet, but it faces a major challenge from Instagram, Snapchat and a new digital platform called Peach for the right to be called the news bureau of social media.
Writing for The New Yorker, Joshua Topolsky says Twitter, which once seemed unassailable, now seems confused and vulnerable. Twitter's original appeal as a forum for “raw, streamlined” citizen journalism has turned into a company without a compass.
"Changes to the product made it hard to follow conversations or narratives,” wrote Topolsky, co-founder of Vox Media. "A lack of rigor in verifying reliable sources made information suspect or confusing. More troubling was the growing wave of harassment and abuse that users of the service were dealing with – a quagmire epitomized by the roving flocks of hateful, misogynistic, and well-organized “Gamergate” communities that flooded people’s feeds with hate speech and threats. The company seemed to be wholly unprepared to handle mob violence, with few tools at its disposal to moderate or quell uprisings.”
Perhaps most troubling are reports that Twitter will lift its 140-character limit and allow tweets with as many as 10,000 characters. Topolsky mockingly called that change an attempt to compete for the “short- and long-winded alike.”
There is objective evidence Twitter has hit a digital wall. Its user base is stagnant. It is hemorrhaging money and has watched its stock value tumble by 50 percent. The company has also lost a bevy of top executives, some of whom have gone to work for Twitter competitors.
Worse yet, Topolsky says, Twitter could be on the verge of irrelevance. Millennials employ Instagram and Snapchat for quick, real-time news-sharing. Instagram, WhatsApp and WeChat now have as many individual users as Twitter, and Snapchat is gaining ground fast.
Many young social users also have abandoned Facebook, Topolsky notes, but Facebook has adapted and kept growing. He says Facebook has “come to dominate and define the concept of social conversation” by dealing aggressively with online campaigns of “noise and intrusion.” Requiring people to use their real names, according to Topolsky, "has certainly made Facebook a much safer space in which to engage.”
Topolsky, who counts himself as a committed Twitter user, hasn’t given up hope. "The core ideals that made the product great are not lost, yet, even if they’ve been obscured," he says. "The directness and power at the heart of Twitter – short bursts of information that can make you feel that you’re plugged into a hulking hive mind – are still its greatest asset.”
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has returned to lead Twitter through its difficult patch, much like Steve Jobs was summoned to revive Apple. Meanwhile, Twitter users will keep their fingers crossed for the social media platform that is a perfect for newsjacking, crisis response and story-sharing. For busy people interested in what’s going on, it is an invaluable tool. The question is whether it will remain relevant.