Twitter floats. But there's a problem

It won't make money as easily as Facebook.

Late last week, Twitter officially revealed its plans for a $1 bn initial public offering. For an IPO of this size, alongside a valuation of $10 bn, even though it has never turned a profit, this is pretty punchy. One thing that is for sure, Twitter’s floatation is the most hotly anticipated since Facebook’s nearly 18 months ago. However, once the morning bell has been rung and the hype and frenzy calms down, you can bet there will be anxious stakeholders and investors, keen to see some rapid return.

Such is the scrutiny on it, Twitter has to justify this valuation. And fast. If it is going to be a financial success, it has to monetise its biggest asset, its audience. But this is where Twitter may come unstuck. Similarly to Facebook, it will likely look to advertising to its users to claim revenues – both on desktop and on mobile. It is clearly taking the latter especially seriously, with its recent $350 million acquisition of MoPub, which will certainly facilitate the process of advertising to its mobile userbase. It should also be noted that Twitter has undoubtedly done phenomenally well to recruit over 200 million users into its environment. However, the big difference is that its particular environment is not especially advertiser friendly.

Think how quickly tweets appear and then disappear on a timeline; consider the potentially intrusive nature of ads in your conversation stream. At a moment in time therefore, capturing engagement – so key to targeted advertising –  is limited, which puts the brakes on meaning, purpose and potential wastage.

The additional problem is that this is all happening within Twitter’s own four walls. A tweet can be there and gone within seconds within Twitter, but it can live on across the entire Web in a number of different forms – email, IM link, shortened URL. But Twitter, similar to other noteworthy social networks and portals, is currently not able to engage, target and therefore make money across the open Web, which makes the walled garden it sits in seem even more claustrophobic.

Another major pressure Twitter is facing is, quite simply, the affiliation with the word “social”. There is undoubtedly a sentiment, whether in the City or on Wall Street, that if you are a “social media business”, you are automatically going to be worth billions. The term seems to have become the sole domain of the major networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. However, this is not a fair representation of social media. These sites certainly command a great deal of active users, but the truth is they only actually account for a relatively small percentage of what is actually being shared and communicated across the Web. Think how much is shared via other methods, such as copy and pasting, IM and even good old email (which is still by far and away the most used way to share content). The only entity that truly represents global social interaction is the Internet at large. And this needs to be considered when labelling a company as “social”, especially one that has to operate within its own confines. The sooner this recognition starts happening, the sooner the inordinate amount of pressure on networks, such as Twitter, to show instant return will ease.

I’m not saying Twitter will not be highly successful but people have to stop over cooking the dish. This is the largest Silicon Valley offering since Facebook’s last year. And with the limitations it has, it is going to have to work very hard to appease anxious stakeholders wanting to see an early return. Let them exist and be happy as a very successful and smart business but don't hype it and assume they have to make billions in ad dollars!

Photograph: Getty Images

Rupert Staines is European Managing Director at RadiumOne

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.