Thursday 8 December 2016

From Tweet to Sour: Twitter is at a crossroads as the social media app celebrates its 10th birthday

Published 19/03/2016 | 00:00

Twitter’s MD in Ireland, Stephen McIntyre, with Twitter staff at the firm’s HQ in Dublin.
Twitter’s MD in Ireland, Stephen McIntyre, with Twitter staff at the firm’s HQ in Dublin.
Positive: Twitter's Barry Collins
Data has now overtaken voice calls as the main use for mobile phones in Ireland
The Twitter Inc. logo
Claire Byrne hosting some of RTE's election coverage
Photo: depositphotos

It heralded a hashtag revolution, but as it turns 10, our reporter looks at what the future holds for the social-network giant.

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Walk through the open-plan office of Twitter's HQ for Europe, the Middle East and Africa on Dublin's Townsend Street and you are likely to be struck by the youth of the staff. Almost everyone appears to be in their 20s or 30s. There's a comparatively even gender split. Roughly half are Irish, the rest from overseas.

Smart-casual seems to be the uniform choice for men and women - somewhere between the couldn't-care-less T-shirt/jeans combo of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and the conservative suiting of the IFSC just across the Liffey. Barry Collins, one of the most senior directors in Dublin, says he saw someone wear a tie to the office once, but reckons he had a wedding to go to later.

Corkonian Collins is 48 and quips that he feels his age here. Twitter celebrates its 10th anniversary on Monday and it's fair to say a sizeable proportion of the Irish operation were still at school when founder Jack Dorsey sent the very first tweet in San Francisco.

Twitter Chairman Jack Dorsey. Photo: Bloomberg
Twitter Chairman Jack Dorsey. Photo: Bloomberg

Today, 500 million tweets are posted globally every 24 hours and the company boasts of 320 million unique users - a figure that must have seemed unthinkable in 2006 when even tech-heads were trying to work out just what Twitter - or twttr, as it was initially branded - was.

"It's a huge reach," Collins says, "and there's another 500 million who engage with Twitter indirectly though newspaper articles, Google searches and so on. That's an awful lot of people, a number reached by very few companies."

And, yet, Twitter has nothing like the stranglehold of Facebook, which was founded just two years earlier.

Almost 1.6 billion people globally have a Facebook account - five times more than Twitter enjoys. There's a greater penetration of Twitter, per capita, in this country but it still lags a long way behind Facebook.

According to the most recent Ipsos MRBI data, 63pc of Irish people aged 15 or older have Facebook accounts while the percentage for Twitter is 31pc for the same age group. And 94pc of the 15-24 bracket are 'on' Facebook; 54pc from this group use Twitter.

But it's the daily-use data that truly exposes the gulf between Facebook and Twitter. More than two-thirds of Facebook account holders use it every day, but according to the Ipsos poll, just 35pc of Twitter users have a daily relationship with the site. That's down from 39pc. Collins declines to say how many Irish users it has.

Positive: Twitter's Barry Collins
Positive: Twitter's Barry Collins

"We don't break out the number for Ireland. We know that Ireland is one of the most engaged users on a per-capita basis. Ireland over indexes. The nature of Twitter appeals to the Irish psyche, that short, snappy commentary."

Twitter may be valued at $10bn, but it has never made a profit. Like many of the giants of Silicon Valley, it has struggled to convert a huge brand name into a profitable company, much to the concern of shareholders and investors.

Last October, it had its biggest shake-up in years after founder Dorsey returned as CEO. One of his first acts was to make more than 300 staff redundant as he talked about the company needing to "produce a streamlined road-map". Then, in January, Dorsey was forced to correct "inaccurate press rumours" after the sudden departure of four senior executives.

Collins acknowledges that it hasn't all been plain sailing for the company but is adamant that its fortunes are changing: "We made $2.2bn (€1.95bn) in ad revenue in 2015."

It's a figure that's up 60pc year-on-year and accounts for 130,000 ads - or 'promoted tweets'.

"We're one of the fastest-growing billion-dollar businesses in the world. This is a multi-generational platform that we're building here. We've reached critical mass and momentum. We're one of the biggest brands in the world - you go to any country in the world and people know the bird in the logo."

Jack Dorsey, inventor and co-founder of Twitter, which released financial results last week, revealing ‘paltry’ 60pc revenue increase. So why are some analysts calling this ‘failure’?. Photographer: Yana Paskova/Bloomberg
Jack Dorsey, inventor and co-founder of Twitter, which released financial results last week, revealing ‘paltry’ 60pc revenue increase. So why are some analysts calling this ‘failure’?. Photographer: Yana Paskova/Bloomberg

While there's little doubting the improvements to the Twitter experience, even the most casual user will have noticed far more of these promoted tweets over the past 12 months, and Collins admits that there is a tricky balancing act in bringing in revenue but not swamping users' feeds with ads.

"We want to balance user experience and ads and be very targeted with ads - try to make them relevant for people."

Twitter's road to the mainstream was helped by the so-called early adopters, who jumped on board in early 2007 at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. It was also the year that the Twitter hashtag was born, one of the fundamentals of the experience of users to this day.

The Twitter Inc. logo
The Twitter Inc. logo

Collins says its value as a news generator became apparent in 2009 when it was a tweeter who broke the story of the pilot who landed safely in New York's Hudson River after his plane got into difficulties. The citizen journalist aspect of Twitter would also be noted in the reporting of the Arab Spring from December 2010.

Twitter's growth earlier this decade was phenomenal, but it appears to have plateaued in terms of new users. Amarach Research conducts monthly internet-usage polls and director Gerard O'Neill says Twitter seems to be struggling to increase its audience.

"Our research shows a greater percentage of Irish men (30pc) than women (28pc)," he says, "and I think some people are put off by the negativity and aggression they might encounter on Twitter. There's been so much publicity about the trolling that can go on and I don't think that helps to interest new users," says O'Neill.

One of last year's most high-profile books, Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed, documented the litany of abuse and reputational devastation suffered by ordinary members of the public after posting ill-advised tweets. It made for sobering reading. Ronson noted that it tended to be women, rather than men, who were subjected to the most unsavoury opprobrium, with rape threats disturbingly common.

Two of Ireland's highest-profile broadcasters, Ryan Tubridy and Claire Byrne, closed down personal Twitter accounts due to consistent abuse, while actor Stephen Fry and singer Sam Smith have both walked away from Twitter in recent weeks.

Fry issued a statement on his website lamenting "what fun Twitter was in its early days" and suggesting it had become "a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended".

The following week, Twitter's most senior Irish executive, Stephen McIntyre, told the Irish Independent: "If the question is 'were people nasty to each other before Twitter?', then the answer would be yes. More broadly, I think the internet in some way holds a mirror up to society and sometimes we don't like what we see when we look in that mirror."

Jane Suiter, senior lecturer at Dublin City University's School of Communications, believes the positive aspects of Twitter greatly outweigh the negatives.

"Of course trolling happens and it can be very unpleasant, but the 'block' and 'mute' options are there for a reason," she says. "If used well, Twitter is a great resource for contacts and, especially as a news feed."

Twitter's San Francisco headquarters. Photo: Flickr
Twitter's San Francisco headquarters. Photo: Flickr

She hears Twitter's earliest recruits talk in a nostalgic way about its good old days, but suggests such memories are similar to those who rhapsodise about "seeing U2 at the Dandelion Market".

The Twitter experience, she insists, has got better and better, "even if newer feature like 'pinned tweets' really annoys me."

Suiter says it really came into its own during last month's General Election, especially during the leaders' debates when the various claims made by the leaders were parsed and analysed instantly on Twitter.

RTÉ's first debate generated 69,000 #GE16 hashtags, making it the number-two trending topic on Twitter worldwide.

"There's no doubt Twitter had a great election here," says Suiter. "And even those who aren't users couldn't have failed to sense its impact with all the conventional media reports that looked at how Twitter was reacting."

Mark Little, the former RTÉ reporter and founder of Storyful - the news agency that verifies user-generated content - is now Twitter's vice president of media in Europe and Africa.

He wrote on the morning of the election that "the tide of social [media] engagement is unstoppable… there is no mistaking the public utility that platforms such as Twitter have brought to the electoral process.

"Thirty years ago, each voter was an observer. Today, they have the power to be a participant long before they ever step into that polling station."

Journalist Gareth O'Connor was working with Little in the RTÉ newsroom when he signed up to the site in February 2009, and says Twitter has been life-changing.

"I sent my first tweet on my 40th birthday and, through Twitter, I've met some fantastic, interesting people. It's helped shape the direction of my career since and introduced me to content and ideas I may not have encountered otherwise."

Twitter's San Francisco headquarters. Photo: Flickr
Twitter's San Francisco headquarters. Photo: Flickr

At 67,000-odd tweets, O'Connor is a prodigious user and jokes that when he thinks of his Twitter output, he regards it as his lost novel.

"I was actually writing a book when I started tweeting," he says. "I'd written three or four chapters, but haven't returned to it."

He admits that much of the debate on Twitter can be "robust" and says he takes care not to post aggressive, malevolent tweets.

"I'm a positive person anyway, so my tweets would be a reflection of that. I think it's important to remember that you're leaving your social signature up there. Some people, especially younger tweeters, don't stop to think before posting something they might come to regret. I've witnessed people really damaging their reputations with the stuff they're writing. I think you have to be mindful of the harm it can do."

Jack Murray, MD of Media HQ, a company whose work includes training people to get the most out of social media, says Twitter's importance cannot be overestimated.

"The arrival of Twitter was one of the most seminal moments in global communications," he says. "It put conversation at the heart of communication and it has enabled the sort of accessibility that just wasn't there before."

He believes its great strength is the forced brevity. "It can be a challenge to keep your tweet to 140 characters, but often a sentence is all it takes to communicate a point powerfully."

Like many Twitter lovers, he thinks it would be a mistake to make it possible for people to send lengthy tweets. Rumours from Silicon Valley indicate that tweets with a 1,000-word capacity might be in the offing, thus changing Twitter as we now know it forever. "Being clever in 140 characters is what Twitter's about. Why change its strongest USP?" says Murray.

He has been a Twitter user for five years and says there has been just one occasion where an exchange upset him. Having tweeted about seeking an employee through JobBridge, he was "castigated" for using the government scheme. Some of the tweets got a little too personal.

"I was very calm about it, but the next day I picked up the phone and spoke to the people who had sent me those tweets. I explained that I had used JobBridge before and given full-time employment to the person I'd taken on, so the scheme had done it's job. They didn't criticise me again."

Despite his enthusiasm for Twitter, Murray believes it does not go far enough to protect those who are the victims of trolling.

"I don't think they're doing enough to control their own animal," he says. "If someone is libelled in print, the newspaper gets sued. I think there could be a ticking time bomb with Twitter."

Back at Twitter HQ, Collins refutes such a suggestion: "User safety is one of the company's top priorities. What a lot of people don't recognise is we have strict rules of using the platform, and if you don't abide by those rules, we will remove you from the service. The policies have got stronger."

Meanwhile, Collins and the 200-odd staff in Dublin -some of whom are located in a second building around the corner on Pearse Street - will be moving into a large office complex, currently being given a facelift, by the end of the year.

The company has signed a 20-year lease on Cumberland House, Fenian Street, and it's an indication, he says, of Twitter's long-term commitment to Dublin.

"We're not a brand in decline," he says.

"We haven't come next or near our peak. We're not complacent. We don't take our place in society as a given. We're more relevant than we've ever been."

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