Happy Birthday Twitter - hope you survive the next decade

Twitter has become an essential part of the media and communications landscape since it launched a decade ago - but it is still bedeviled with doubts about its long-term commercial sustainability as a business.

Three versions of the Twitter app logo.
Three versions of the Twitter app logo.

It’s hard to believe Twitter has only been part of our lives for 10 years.

The micro-messaging utility was devised in 2006 by Jack Dorsey and he sent his first tweet on March 21 of that year, hence this week’s celebrations of Twitter’s first decade in existence.

Twitter was one of those phenomena that used SXSW as a platform to really take off in 2007. The iconic hashtag (#) followed soon after.

Incidents such as the US Airways plane crash on the Hudson River, the Arab Spring, and the Boston Bombings introduced the concept of Twitter as a media outlet in its own right. Images and news surface first on Twitter and that’s where most people go now when a story breaks.

Reporters covering breaking news resort to quoting what is being said on Twitter as "news" in the absence of any substantive reporting of their own. The latest terrorist bombings this week in Belgium were just one more example.

It is not uncommon to see whole stories constructed around a tweet by a celebrity such as Katy Perry or a politician such as Donald Trump. Perry is the most popular person on Twitter, with an incredible 84 million followers.

Trump has turned provocative tweeting into an art form during the latest Republican presidential primary season and his team uses Twitter and its live-broadcasting app Periscope as essential parts of his media and communications strategy.

Here at PRWeek we are not averse to doing stories based on tweets ourselves, especially those relating to real-time marketing as brands attempt to emulate the hugely popular Oreo ‘Dunkin’ in the Dark' moment during the 2013 Super Bowl.

Other iconic images associated with Twitter’s inexorable rise include President Obama hugging wife Michelle after winning a second term as president in November 2012, which was subsequently usurped as the most retweeted item by the famous Oscars selfie in March 2014.

There are those who suggest the scale of Twitter is not backed up by real metrics and influence that follows through into measuring effectiveness. People often retweet links, pictures, videos, and content without even reading or consuming the content themselves.

On the commercial side, there have been, and continue to be, serious doubts about whether Twitter will reach the end of its second decade, especially in its current format.

As of the end of last year, Twitter claimed 320 million active monthly users - 80% of whom were active via mobile – and 1 billion monthly unique visits to sites with embedded tweets. Only 21% of Twitter accounts are based in the U.S., so it is a genuinely global platform.

But since its IPO in 2013, Twitter's growth has stalled and new user sign-ups have plateaued. Its stock price has suffered in the face of such declining growth metrics, which analysts routinely use to measure the value of a stock.

Morale has suffered in part due to management upheaval, which saw co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams move on to new ventures and culminated in the resignation of CEO, and another founder, Dick Costolo last July. Having been ousted in 2008, Dorsey returned as full-time CEO following an interim stint after Costolo departed.

Of course, Twitter's user numbers, while undoubtedly impressive and substantial, pale into insignificance against the behemoth that is Facebook. And, unlike Facebook, Twitter has struggled to create a sustainable business model to accompany its massive traffic and reach.

But Twitter is still immensely influential and innovative, with the launch of short-form video app Vine in 2013 and acquisition of real-time video app Periscope in 2015 just two genuinely useful next-generation additions to the core brand that have ensured the platform doesn’t molder and fade away.

Twitter has taken on a persona and character of its own in the same way as Google and Facebook. We are regularly told that "Twitter" has cast its judgment or reached its verdict on important topical matters of the day.

Only today, British tabloid newspaper The Sun splashed with the lede "Twitter tears into Guardian for inserting picture of WRONG player on front of Johan Cruyff tribute" following the death of one of the most iconic soccer players of our time.

Most of us use Twitter on a daily basis without thinking. It’s a fundamental part of our media consumption. It helps us track real-time news and current events, and it leads us down interesting alleyways to discover compelling content we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

It has competitors such as Snapchat and Instagram snapping at its heels. But it hasn’t gone out of fashion with younger generations in quite the same way as platforms such as Facebook, which despite its heft is routinely labeled as a place where your parents hang out by millennials, especially in developed economies.

Twitter can still be all things to all people. It’s a vital component of most communications and marketing strategies.

I for one think we would all miss it terribly if it wasn’t there, from a personal and business point of view, and for that reason I genuinely hope it comes up with a commercial model that will allow it to sustain itself until the celebration of its second decade and beyond.

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