Please Twitter, Just Stay Weird; An IPO Will Pressure Twitter to Change—and Not for the Better; most Web services take off by offering an online analogue for activities we already do offline

September 25, 2013, 5:35 p.m. ET

Please Twitter, Just Stay Weird

An IPO Will Pressure Twitter to Change—and Not for the Better

FARHAD MANJOO

I am an inveterate Tweeter. I use Twitter more than any communications medium other than email. I check it first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and about a billion times in between. (Assume that for every sentence in this article, I’ve refreshed Twitter three times.) I’ve tweeted my wedding, my kids’ births, and my major surgeries. I have joked with my wife—who, like most sensible people, doesn’t use Twitter but loves Facebook FB +2.08% —that by neglecting the microblogging service, she’s missing out on the most interesting facet of my personality. The sad thing about this is that, most days, it isn’t really a joke: @fmanjoo is usually a lot more fun than Farhad Manjoo.But as for all true loves, I’ve never been able to explain what I get out of Twitter, or why exactly I find it so enthralling. I don’t think I’ve ever convinced a single person I know in real life to join Twitter. Twitter Inc., the company, seems to have a similar problem. It has long struggled with huge “churn”—many people who sign up don’t use it—and reports suggest that its user growth slowed. Part of this stems from Twitter’s insular conventions, all those mysterious @s and #s.

But there’s a larger reason for Twitter’s mainstream difficulty: Twitter is, fundamentally, a strange, nearly surreal service. Unlike Facebook, it isn’t for everyone. That’s what the initiated love about it—but now that Twitter is going public and looking for growth, Twitter’s inherent weirdness is at risk.

When it is public, Twitter will be forced to do a couple things that it might not have otherwise considered. First, it will have to run a lot more ads. This isn’t surprising—every website turns on the spigot at some time—and it won’t be ruinous. Twitter’s ads, which show up as regular tweets, are some of the least annoying ad units found anywhere online. But Twitter will also face intense pressure to alter its service in order to make the service more widely appealing.

To meet investors’ expectations of growth, Twitter will increasingly be pushed to mimic services like Facebook and Instagram: to favor pictures and videos over texts, to highlight interactions with friends, or to impose some kind of order on your chaotic, fast-moving stream of tweets. The danger in Twitter’s IPO is that it will be pushed to turn into something for everyone—something it isn’t.

As I’ve argued before, most Web services take off by offering an online analogue for activities we already do offline. Facebook is an online phone book, Google an online library, Amazon an online store. These services instantly make sense to new users. Twitter isn’t like that. What’s Twitter? It’s an online ham radio. The activities Twitter is good for—posting public links and commentary, making “friends” with people you don’t know offline, following breaking news—aren’t mainstream pursuits. Twitter is a natural platform for celebrities, journalists, politicians, marketers, and anyone else who wants to cultivate a public following or connect with strangers. But most people don’t have anything to sell, they don’t have a brand to burnish, and a lot of us are justifiably leery of posting publicly.

One potential killer use for Twitter is as a real-time news service. When a lawmaker is filibustering, an entertainer is imploding, or some kind of disaster is unfolding, Twitter is the most thrilling place to follow along. But this, too, is of limited appeal. As a journalist, I can’t take my eye off Twitter because I love the news. For non-journalists, though, the chaotic, shifting story line one gets from Twitter when anything big breaks is of dubious utility. (You’re better off logging off the Internet and waiting until the fog clears to get the most accurate story-see the Boston bombing).

What’s more, breaking news just isn’t that big a business. At peak times, cable news networks collectively attract a few million viewers a day. That’s not bad, but it isn’t a bonanza, either. What’s more, news makes for a fluctuating audience, while other social apps provide constant, regular appeal. According to comScore, about 20% of the time that Americans spend on mobile phones is spent using Facebook. About 3% of our time is spent on Instagram. Twitter, meanwhile, consumes just 1.4% of our time.

Which is fine. As it is, despite being much smaller than Facebook, Twitter is still huge enough that it can make a lot of money from ads. (Twitter’s IPO filings are confidential; an analysis by the research firm eMarketer estimates that Twitter’s ad revenues will approach $600 million this year, and $1 billion in 2014.) In addition to making money from ads, it can likely find a pretty good business by selling its data for analysis by marketers.

The trouble is, when it’s public, Twitter won’t have the luxury of staying a relatively small, “pretty good” business. Investors will want growth—and Twitter will be tempted to give in. That may already be happening. According to the New Yorker’s Matt Buchanan, Twitter’s coming mobile app redesign will push a graphically “rich” experience that automatically expands photos and videos (including from ads) directly in a user’s tweet stream. A few weeks ago, Twitter unveiled another feature meant to make the service more inviting-when people chat with each other on the service, their tweets are now joined together, breaking the chronological ordering that has long reigned on Twitter.

Mr. Buchanan says these changes are mimicking Facebook’s News Feed, and I can’t help but agree. And that’s a shame. To me, what makes Twitter such an addictive place is that it’s precisely tailored to my needs as a public person. The risk is that by becoming more inviting, it also becomes more generic: It becomes less like Twitter and more like everything else. That could be good for its bottom line, but @fmanjoo isn’t going to like it.

 

Do I Really Have To Join Twitter?

What to do if you’re just not that into microblogging but don’t want to be left behind.

By Farhad Manjoo

Twitter is growing so fast it’s sometimes easy to forget that to a lot of people, the concept is completely bizarre. According to comScore, the microblogging site received about 10 million visitors in February—a 700 percent increase over last year. To the initiated, the surge seems justified. Committed Twitterers argue that the 140-character-or-less tweet represents the next great mode of human communication. To vast swaths of the population, though, Twitter is inscrutable: Wait a minute—you want me to keep a perpetual log of my boring life for all the world to see? What if I just spend my free time watching Golden Girls?

In other words, it’s hard for many to shake the feeling that Twitter is a waste of time. It’s not only Luddites who feel this way; in the last few months, a surprising number of people in the tech industry—people who fancy themselves the earliest of early adopters—have mentioned to me that they have a hard time wrapping their heads around the service. Many float the idea that Twitter is little more than an overhyped, media-driven sensation.

Is Twitter a fad? It’s certainly received more than 140 characters of love from the press recently; everywhere you look, someone in the news is tweeting. But the people on TV rarely seem to address something very basic: What’s the point of tweeting? And should you do it? I get variations on this question often from readers. Let’s say you’re a moderately tech-savvy person who takes well to new forms of gabbing—you’ve got an easy facility with blogs, you log in to Facebook when you need it, you text, you IM, and perhaps you even talk to your friends through Skype. Is it time for you to jump into microblogging, too? Would you be missing out on some important cultural touchstone if you sat out this round of techno-innovation?

The short answer: Eh, go ahead and give it a try if you like, but there’s nothing lame about waiting to see whether Twitter pans out.

Much of what we do online has obvious analogues in the past: E-mail and IM replace letters and face-to-face chatting. Blogging is personal pamphleteering. Skype is the new landline. Social networks let us map our real-life connections to the Web. It’s not surprising, then, that these new tools deliver obvious social utility—Facebook is the best way to get in touch with old friends, and instant messaging is the quickest way to collaborate with your colleagues across the country. Twitter is different. It’s not a faster or easier way of doing something you did in the past, unless you were one of those people who wrote short “quips” on bathroom stalls. It’s a totally alien form of communication. Microblogging mixes up features of e-mail, IM, blogs, and social networks to create something not just novel but also confusing, and doing it well takes time and patience. That’s not to say it isn’t useful; to some people in some situations, Twitter is irreplaceable. But it is not—or, at least, not yet—a necessary way to stay socially relevant in the information age.

As a practical matter, Twitter is a cinch to get into: You sign up, pick a few people to follow, then start typing out your thoughts, making sure to keep each post below the 140-character limit. (There are also some conventions you’ve got to get used to—here’s a short primer.) But Twitter, unlike Facebook, favors one-way connections—you can follow my posts, but I don’t have to follow yours. As a result, novice Twitterers are met with instant discouragement—you start out with nobody reading your posts, and because the people you follow don’t have to follow you, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever convince great numbers of people to listen to what you have to say. Twitter is not a meritocracy; you may be the cleverest quipper in your circle, but celebrities and people in the media inevitably win the most followers. There is no justice in the fact that a banal Twitterer like Sen. Claire McCaskill has attracted an audience of more than 19,000. (A typically riveting McCaskill tweet: “Leaving for KC soon. Meeting about American car manufacturing. Then on to Springfield. Press avail there.”) But that’s how Twitter goes; if you join, be prepared to deal with a lot of people who are undeservedly more popular than yourself.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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