For those of us with what could probably be described as an unhealthy addiction to Twitter, life without the social network seems almost unthinkable. Where would we get our news? Where would we meet new people? Where, importantly, would we so easily be able to remain unchallenged in a perfect echo chamber of our own views?
Perhaps unfortunately, the wider world may not find it so easy to see the inherent value in the site. Despite hyped up reports of a bidding war to buy Twitter, two of the prospective buyers, Google and Disney, have pulled out. This leaves just one remaining buyer, Salesforce, who aren’t even guaranteed to buy the company at all.
It’s led to a fall in Twitter shares of almost a fifth – the latest in a string of financial bad news for the site.
In the last three months of 2015, Twitter had a net loss of £62m – which is, granted, a slight improvement from the year before, when it lost £86m in the same time frame. The losses don’t square with expenditure, either – in 2015, Twitter’s expenses increased by £408m, a 52% increase from 2014.
Finances aside, the value of Twitter as a product seems to be questionable, too. User growth has massively stalled, and the last time it released figures for monthly active users it had failed to grow for the first time in the company’s history.
Compare this to the significant growth that rival social networks have been experiencing – Instagram’s massive increase in users, Snapchat’s 100m daily users, Facebook’s billion monthly users – and it’s obvious that Twitter has a serious problem.
If you use the site regularly, it’s easy to see why. When Jack Dorsey was reappointed CEO he said that changes to the platform were merely an attempt to “make Twitter more Twitter-y”. Users didn’t quite agree; when Twitter suggested that timelines would become algorithmic rather than chronological, the hashtag “#RIPTwitter” trended for days.
Other amends came to the site, too: “favourites” were replaced with “hearts” to the chagrin of many, and Dorsey suggested that the 140 character brevity so key to the appeal of Twitter could be replaced by a significantly larger 10,000 character limit on tweets.
These may be fairly superficial changes – who really cares if a fave is now a heart? But they didn’t endear the site to prolific users and they certainly did nothing to encourage new signups.
This superficiality was also particularly galling when you consider some of the day to day issues people experience on Twitter – in particular, the prevalence of harassment against minority groups.
Right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was recently banned from the site for encouraging his fans to troll Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones — who received a torrent of racist and misogynistic tweets.
What was particularly appalling about the incident wasn’t just the way a woman’s privacy and autonomy was violated, nor the violently gendered and racialised abuse that she received. It was also the fact that, for many of us, it wasn’t really surprising at all.
The scale of the attack was unprecedented, and the racialised element particularly shocking. But many Twitter users – women, people from the LGBTQI community, people of colour – recognised in it their daily experience of the site. Ask almost anyone from a minority group whether they’ve received online abuse and the answer is highly likely to be yes.
Twitter might have banned Yiannopoulos but appalling harassment remains on the site, despite being reported, and accounts that send personalised, targeted and continuous abuse are hard for moderators to weed out.
It’s not like it doesn’t have the tools, either – videos that infringe copyright are removed almost immediately. Abuse is not.
Companies like Disney, Google and Salesforce are obviously unlikely to care as much about harassment and abuse as they are the dismal financial performance the company is experiencing. But the two are linked.
Twitter is a company, and of course some of its attention is going to be focused on its financial goals and progress. But it’s also a product used by millions of people, and it has a responsibility to balance its brand partnerships and promotions and financial growth with proactive steps to protect those people. If Twitter isn’t careful it won’t just lose its financial backers – it will lose all of its users, too.
Emily Reynolds is a freelance journalist and author who lives in Berlin.