Twitter’s Identity Crisis: News service or social network?

They say ‘the caged bird does not sing’. The behaviour of my own pet birds might suggest otherwise, but the actions of Twitter this week put the behaviour of one multibillion dollar bird in line with this folk law in a pretty big way. If you didn’t hear, Twitter suddenly switched the categorisation of its service from ‘social network’ to ‘News’ on Apple’s App Store this week, choosing to compete with the likes of Reddit and Wall Street Journal over traditional foes like Facebook and Instagram.

Without an ounce of warning the tech world’s favourite bird broke free of its cage and flew to greener pastures. On the surface the change has boosted Twitter’s visibility quite substantially, moving from position number 5 on Apple’s App Store in Social Networking to position number 1 in News. Sarah Perez from TechCrunch notes though that the company’s download numbers have remained relatively unchanged, so some new feathers don’t appear to have done much to help appease critics who say nothing the service has done over the past year has improved the appeal of its core product. Who would have thought a bird wouldn’t know that it isn’t always greener on the other side of the hill?


New CEO, favourites becoming hearts, and the introduction of algorithmically curated feeds that I ranted about in the past have done nothing but contribute to Twitter’s ongoing identity crisis, and its economic fortunes still aren’t tracking too well either. I previously argued that the social network should stick to its core competency of delivering a kind of stream of consciousness from around the world, live, and leave it to its users to dictate what would ‘trend’ and what wouldn’t. In tandem with bigger, influential players on the network, regular people have delivered some of Twitter’s most memorable moments, like the Bin Laden raid that was live tweeted to the world before the world even knew what it was. Could an algorithm have identified the significance of that event before a human, let alone to formally make it a ‘news’ item, as the service’s new ‘news’ category almost necessitates?

Whatever the answer, Twitter’s latest CEO suddenly wants everyone to know that the platform is all about being ‘live’ now, exclaiming “We’ve been doing live for 10 years, and we believe we have a leadership potential in it…A leadership position in it.” These comments were in response to Facebook’s new live streaming feature, where the company is quick to point out its experience in providing its ‘live’ core product, but where it is quick to back away when it comes to criticism of its algorithm that shows past events first. Are you emphatically live or not, Twitter?

If we go along with its CEO then whether or not Twitter should be primarily viewed live may no longer form a big part of its identity crisis, but it will certainly been replaced with questions surrounding whether or not social is a big part of its new ‘news’ focus? It just seems silly for a social network to categorise itself away from its bread and butter. We all love that the platform can bring us the real world as it happens, but we also love to connect and talk about it. And you know, sometimes it is about sharing not so present content too, but it is us who determine if and when that stuff trends.

So is the future of Twitter just large organisations and celebrities tweeting to a passive audience, or will Twitter’s bird call continue to be about giving the regular joe a platform too? The bird has set itself free from Facebook, Instagram and the like, and the News category hasn’t immediately become a greener pasture, so where the bird flies to next is anyone’s guess.

Actually, I bet $5 that we will be seeing Twitter right below Angry Birds a day after their next earnings call – who is with me?

Michael feels privileged to be part of the #SMPerth community as its first intern.