Why Twitter is Struggling, According to One Power User

March 5, 2016, 8:04 PM UTC
Squawk on the Street
SQUAWK ON THE STREET -- Pictured: Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, and just-named interim CEO of Twitter, in an interview at CNBC's San Francicso bureau, on June 12, 2015 -- (Photo by: John Chiala/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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Yesterday, New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis offered a lengthy rumination on why Twitter is having so much trouble attracting and retaining users. The piece is full of good insights, but essentially boils down to this: Twitter may be addictive for its power users, but it confuses and even scares pretty much everyone else.

Lewis is a power user herself, tweeting around 18 times a day since 2007 and accumulating nearly 50,000 followers, she says. She admits that she enjoys Twitter because she’s winning “a perpetual high-school popularity contest.”

Of course, that’s not how everyone uses Twitter (TWTR). (With my own anemic 1,800 followers, it’s more like a handy news feed. And I’m okay with that. Really.) But Lewis, echoing investor Chris Sacca, says the high school lunchroom vibe that helped it explode is largely to blame for Twitter’s recent stall.

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For users with fewer followers, she says Twitter can feel like “shouting into the void,” while at the same time presenting the menacing possibility that one ill-advised tweet can get you aggressively harassed, trolled, or fired—as notoriously happened to public relations executive Justine Sacco in 2013. Add to that a lengthening list of unwritten conventions, and it can seem like the platform was positively designed to alienate newbies.

Lewis points out plenty of other things weakening Twitter, from its aggressive colonization by pushy brands, to its increasing use by terrorist recruiters, to the rise of dummy accounts. But she also emphasizes that, largely because of its power users, Twitter’s influence is still huge. For a slightly trivial recent example, see yesterday’s firestorm over pre-peeled oranges at Whole Foods (WFM).

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She suggests that Twitter play to its existing strengths, while making everyday users feel safer by making @-replies less prominent in their feeds. She admits this would emphasize Twitter’s broadcast-like qualities—which is also a large part of what Sacca suggested last year, and what Twitter itself seems to be moving towards with recent changes like the curated Moments channel. That could eventually turn Twitter into a (much more robust) version of RSS or Google (GOOG) Reader, which Twitter itself helped kill off. That would all be while dispensing, in Lewis’ words, with “any remaining pretensions to being a chatroom.”

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