Twitter's Challenge: Updating a Product Users Love to Hate
Report of change to news feed prompts #RIPTwitter hashtag
Twitter under pressure from Wall Street to grow user base
An uproar this weekend over a possible change to how tweets are displayed gave Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey a stark reminder of how hard it’s going to be to fix Twitter Inc.
The company has been under intense pressure from Wall Street to make the product changes necessary to grow its user base and become a more mainstream social media application. Its stock has slumped, and growth has slowed. But every time there’s even a hint of an update that might modify how people connect with Twitter, users throw a tantrum.
After Buzzfeed reported late Friday that Twitter was planning to make its timeline a little more algorithmic, ranking popular tweets first instead of in chronological order, there was an outcry that caused #RIPTwitter to become a top trending topic on -- where else? -- Twitter. Users pledged to abandon the service if the change was made, underscoring how upset they were by posting GIFs of a businessman jumping out the window in a Simpsons episode and Steve Carell’s character in The Office saying “NOOOOO.”
It was another dramatic display in the grand tradition of social media users fretting about changes to a service they get to use for free. A similar backlash ensued a few months ago when Twitter started asking people to “heart” tweets instead of clicking “favorite;” when the company said it wouldn’t mind abandoning its 140-character limit for posts; when the new Moments feature was placed ahead of the “notifications” tab in its application, and so on.
The problem with the crowd: They seem to agree Twitter is flawed, but they don’t have a solution, and they don’t like change. Twitter can’t afford to listen only to its most vocal users. The company has a sweet spot among celebrities, politicians, journalists and other commentators; to scale beyond that, it needs to listen to the data that comes in from product testing. And fast.
In the last year, the shares have tumbled by more than half, putting the company under a microscope in the days before it reports earnings Feb. 10, when analysts are forecasting another slowdown in revenue growth. The company has reported slower user growth ever since its November 2013 initial public offering and has seen a spate of departures from product and engineering executives.
In October, co-founder Dorsey was reinstated as CEO with a pledge to make the product easier to use, ready to re-evaluate the site’s most iconic functions. But even he felt the need defend the company on Saturday, posting to explain that whatever changes Twitter would make would enhance the site’s real-time nature.
"I want you to know we’re always listening,” he said. “Twitter is here to stay! By becoming more Twitter-y.”
Twitter isn’t alone in facing a backlash from dedicated users. Facebook Inc. was hit with widespread protests when it introduced the news feed, but stuck with the change. It’s now a main reason the site is so addictive.
Still, some of Twitter’s employees can’t help but feel a little sensitive about the uproar.
“Seriously people. We aren’t idiots,’’ Brandon Carpenter, who works on the company’s iOS app, said on the site. “Quit speculating about how we’re going to ‘ruin Twitter.’’’
Unfortunately for Carpenter, they probably won’t.