Will Twitter abandon real-time?

Twitter's huge losses are challenging the company to innovate in hopes of broader and deeper user engagement (and advertising). But the changes don't sit well with a news-hound base. 

Eric Risberg/ AP
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, seated at left, first lady of Indonesia, Iriana, center, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, right, pose with Twitter employees during a visit at the social media company's headquarters in San Francisco on February 16, 2016.

Popularity isn't always profitable.

Twitter has become a ubiquitous force in politics and pop culture worldwide, but an annual report shows that since its founding in 2006, the social network has also lost more than $2 billion, Time reported Monday, a loss that has sent CEO Jack Dorsey on a quest for a wider, deeper user base's advertising dollars.

Any attempts by Mr. Dorsey to change Twitter, however, may clash with savvy core users' vision of the company: up-to-the-minute news and opinion, from a company happy to get out of the way and let Tweets unfold without much "interference."

Despite more than 300 million active users, Twitter lost $520 million in the last year alone, continuing a depressing trend that's driven the team towards new innovation.

In 2013, they unleashed Vine, letting users share up to six-second videos; live video sharing came in 2015, when the company purchased Periscope for $86 million.

"Faves" were swapped for "likes," leading to a modest boost in engagement. Twitter has also coyly suggested, but not guaranteed, that it will expand Tweet-boxes to 10,000 characters, since so many users try to get around the usual 140 limit by screenshotting longer texts, anyway.

The new services are meant to "demonstrate our value proposition to a larger audience," as the 10-K says. It's a two-fold audience: users themselves, since growth has been somewhat stagnant (up 9 percent since December 2014), but also the advertising they could attract. Nine tenths of Twitter's revenue came from ads in 2014 and 2015, the filing says, noting "to the extent our logged-in user growth rate slows, our success will become increasingly dependent on our ability to increase levels of ad engagement on Twitter."

But one reason advertisers are wary is that potential new users just don't get Twitter: how to use it, or what it's for. As the 10-K says,

There may be a perception that our products and services are only useful to users who tweet, or to influential users with large audiences. Convincing potential and new users of the value of our products and services is critical to increasing our user base and to the success of our business.

And changes to attract the less media-obsessed crowd could set Twitter's vision on a collision course with old-time users, for whom its real-time livestream is valuable for the way it differs from more "cultivated" social sites like Facebook.

No changes encapsulate that conflict more than the home screen "feed" itself, typically an unruly, constantly-changing tumult of followed users' likes, retweets, links, photos and posts on any and all topics of public or almost pointlessly personal interest. The pure speed of Twitter's approach made it an early favorite with media experts, journalists, and activists, and many credit it with playing a crucial role in protests around the world, from the Arab Spring movements to Black Lives Matter.

Seventy-one percent of users say they're on Twitter several times a day, and 40 percent use it to follow breaking news. In another survey, the Pew Research Center found that half of people surveyed had tweeted about news; of those users, half their tweets were about politics or government, although those topics now make up just 17 percent of all tweets.

Politwoops, a reinstated site run by the Sunlight Foundation and the Open State Foundation, storing politicians' deleted tweets, reflects that commitment to transparent news and accountability (as does, perhaps, Twitter's lack of an 'edit' button). [Editor's note: The original story misidentified the site Politwoops.]

"We've only reached early adopters and tech enthusiasts," CFO Anthony Noto told reporters during a 2015 earnings call. "We've not yet reached the next cohort of users known as the mass market."

Making the platform's constant streaming less overwhelming for new users could be key to profitability.

But a wave of #RIPTwitter outrage from users greeted news that Twitter might start organizing feeds by relevance, not time alone, prioritizing tweets its algorithms thought would be especially important to each unique user. The system would be more akin to Facebook's Newsfeed of friends' updates and, as if often criticized, a "bubble" of similarly-minded news articles and targeted ads. Advertisers' posts would also be considered for the top posts a user could see when they log in to Twitter.

"Moments," another new Twitter feature, cultivates updates about particular trending news stories even more purposefully, but won't clutter up a home screen. Topics appear on a separate screen users must click into. 

The feature was built for people who "find Twitter too difficult to use, or for whatever reason haven't gotten Twitter to work for them," product manager Madhu Muthukumar told The New York Times. 

But for many users, the unique beauty of Twitter is its speed and brevity, without a human hand to guide "relevance." Moments may have to convince them that it's a valuable compromise between traditional news sites and the anarchy of Twitter's old newsfeed.

"We like to think of Twitter Moments as timely as opposed to real-time," Andrew Fitzgerald, who leads the Moments team, told the Times. Mr. Fitzgerald said the news clusters will show "things that are relevant but not necessarily happening at this exact instant, which allows us to break out of the ephemerality of Twitter."

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