1 billion is a big number. Also, it’s an important number for services that make money off ads. Google, which rules online advertising, has six services with more than a billion users.
Facebook has more than a billion users. Not just Facebook; its acquisitions and peripheral services have been approaching the milestone; Whatsapp now has 900 million users, and Facebook Messenger has 700 million users. Instagram recently surpassed Twitter’s user count (again) even though it’s much a much younger product.
So who’s barely on pace for a billion users but gets mentioned in the same breath as Facebook and the other giants? Twitter. With all the drama that’s been going on around the social media service, people are once again beginning to question Twitter’s ability to reel in users and keep them hooked.
Farfetched and Unrealistic
Here’s an article that uses projections to show that it will be a very long time before Twitter reaches a billion users; so long in fact, that by the time it happens (if ever), 1 billion won’t be a significant figure anymore.
But Twitter won’t go toe-to-toe with Facebook and Instagram for one very good reason: it is fundamentally different.
Facebook and Instagram are social networks. They were built with the intention of connecting people with each other. Specifically, these services help people keep up with friends, family, and acquaintances. Connections on social networks generally mean as much to one party as they mean to the other.
Though it’s often grouped into the same category as Facebook and Instagram, Twitter is not a social network; it’s more of a social publishing platform. Relationships on Twitter aren’t reciprocal. Notice how adding someone on Facebook increases both of your friend counts by one, but following someone on Twitter doesn’t mean anything for your follower-base. Sure, there are those who use Twitter only within their private circles to make posts relevant to them personally; that group remains a minority, just like the subgroup that uses Facebook only to follow celebrities.
The problem for social publishing platforms is that the average user (not a publisher) often feels shortchanged by how the product works. On Twitter, you need to produce quality posts in order to build up an audience. If you don’t do that, it will reflect in paltry follower numbers. And our brains, programmed from using social networks, seek out larger followings on a platform that expects us to follow, not build up followings. This could explain why so many people who’ve tried the service have stopped using it.
Cut from a Different Cloth
The only real “users” of Twitter are news publishers, celebrities, and brands. Everyone else is on there to hear from these entities. For this reason, stats like monthly active users and total user count aren’t the ones that need to be taken into consideration while plotting the Twitter growth graph.
Twitter’s real power lies in its wide sphere of influence, which extends well beyond its own boundaries. Think back to any breaking news story or beef between celebrities you’ve heard about. More likely than not, those stories broke or developed on Twitter. Take for example the Oscar selfie Ellen DeGeneres orchestrated; lots of people who’d never used the social media site saw that image, without knowing that that’s where it originated.
Despite its unique position as the place on the Web where lots of important developments originate and evolve, Twitter has had a hard time converting that into traction.
On some occasions, they’ve deviated from their core strengths by trying to grab a competitor’s market. For example, around the time Instagram’s user numbers were beginning to catch up with them, Twitter introduced a feature by which users could share up to four images at once and tag ten people in a picture.
And then there’s been the general lack of clarity in direction. Most recently, Twitter introduced polls natively on the app, which is a feature that doesn’t align with its core philosophy of encouraging meaningful discussion within the 140-character limit. There have also been rumors that Twitter may do away with the 140-character limit, another move that makes little sense for a service largely defined by its brevity.
Twitter needs to grow at a faster rate, but not with a billion users as its target. What the company really needs to worry about is highlighting the metrics that matter, and finding a way to quantify its reach outside of its own user base. This could translate into hitting upon on a way to display ads to those outside their ecosystem. One step in that direction is hooking ads up to embedded tweets, which is something that’s been in the works for a while.
Prateek Jose is a writer and engineering undergrad from India with an unhealthy obsession for obscure historical trivia. Conversations about absurdist fiction and the technological singularity make his day. He’s already uploading parts of his brain to servers by writing for websites such as this one.