Next week marks the 10th anniversary since the hashtag debuted on Twitter on its journey to becoming a familiar component of online conversation.
It has become an appropriate symbol for a social media platform that has always seemed at a crossroads, seeking to define a role that distinguishes it from bigger internet rivals which have come for its its advertising share and even its ownership of the hashtag.
In the past year Twitter has wrestled with that identity like never before. Its chief marketing officer, Leslie Berland, came up with the definition: “Twitter is where you get to see what’s happening everywhere in the world right now”. Then, in a leaked internal memo last November, chief executive Jack Dorsey dubbed the platform he co-created as: “The people’s news network”.
No other social platform has its brand so closely aligned with news. On the App Store it is categorised as a news app and ranks as the most downloaded in that sector in more than 100 countries, including the UK, where it leads from BBC News, Sky News, Mail Online and the Guardian.
Like so much else with Twitter, there is a contradiction here: the social platform is anxious not to be seen as a competitor to these news content creators but wishes to be their hosting partner.
While Twitter is seemingly well-placed to benefit from resurgent public interest in news, the divisive nature of the biggest stories (Trump, Brexit, racism, Islamism) is feeding the angry exchanges which have damaged its appeal as a source of information and a showcase for advertising. Having the president of the United States choose your platform as his medium of choice would normally be a ringing brand endorsement but the morning outbursts of the 45th POTUS elicit a deeply polarised reaction and more confrontation.
In an interview with The Drum, senior Twitter executive Dara Nasr discussed some of these challenges.
Stepping up the fight against trolls
The issue of user safety is “our biggest priority”, he says. After many damaging stories of the platform providing a hangout for trolls and a recruiting post for terror groups, “astronomical” progress has been made in using machine learning to eradicate nefarious accounts. “It’s much easier to report someone right now [and] we have acted on 10 times the amount of reports in the first six months of this year than we did last year. Machine learning allows us to identify when people that we suspend set up a new account under a new email, so the volume of accounts we take down before anything gets done is astronomical.”
For all the poison in current political discourse, Twitter’s claim to have cleaned up its environment is endorsed by some of its current user statistics. Figures released to shareholders last month showed that daily active usage across the site increased for the fifth consecutive quarter in Q2 2017 (and is up by 12% year-on-year). Twitter has 328 million users worldwide (up 5% year-on-year) and its UK user base has grown by 11% in the last 18 months, from 20.76 million in January 2016 to 23.04 million in June 2017.
But monetising this activity is not proving easy. Its Q2 global revenues, at $574m, were down 5% year-on-year, while its advertising income was down 8%. Questions are still being asked over the company’s long-term viability.
Twitter is one of the internet brands most ingrained in modern culture. Newspapers and their websites, news bulletins and TV shows habitually reproduce tweets in their output, such that even those who have shunned the platform are familiar with how it looks (95% of people in the UK see a tweet in some form each month). Twitter argues, with some justification, that without it the wider ecology of news gathering and distribution would be significantly impaired.
For it to benefit from its increased usage, it will need good relations with the rest of that industry. There are growing signs that this is happening, and Twitter can hardly be grouped with Google and Facebook for taking the advertising pie from traditional media.
Partnering – not disrupting – other media companies
Nasr highlights a series of significant relationships that Twitter has recently struck up with big name content creators. “The media are very much our partners…we work really closely with the likes of Sky, ITV, BT Sport…,” he says. “We are not the type of platform that goes out and says ‘TV is dead’, we don’t believe that at all, people love great content.”
Twitter partnered with the BBC to stream coverage of Wimbledon and the UK election. It teamed up with Sky to cover football’s transfer deadline day and with radio giant Global to stream its annual Summertime Ball.
In May it announced a dozen live streaming deals with partners ranging from BuzzFeed (hosting a morning bulletin of tweets) to Bloomberg News (streaming from its 24-hour channel) and sports associations including golf’s PGA and basketball’s WNBA. It also live streamed the Halo World Championships, a prestigious eSports tournament.
Observers might notice that many of these events are outside the bounds of hard news and are hardly going to put the “People’s News Network” head-to-head with CNN.
Nasr’s argument is that the definition of news is subjective. “The truth of the matter is news for the user is what happens that is interesting to them,” he says.
In the UK, the developments on the reality TV show Love Island were of intense interest to users of Twitter. “We were seeing 8m-odd tweets around the programme. This is a programme that is on (cable and satellite channel) ITV2 and the British public love it.”
Of course, reality shows have long been considered news by the tabloid press (and sometimes the quality press too). Sport, especially the results and the stories that break outside the arena, is also a news genre. “With newspapers, often the first thing people do is turn it around and see the sport first,” says Nasr. “News means different things for different people.”
Sky Sports has been one of the leading media brands in recognising the value to its audience of Twitter’s immediacy. It has a commercial deal with the social platform to post every Premier League goal within seconds of it being scored, accompanied by advertising. It was an obvious response to fans posting their own videos in real-time from the stands.
“The quality of that footage will be done on a phone in row Z. We don’t monetise that,” says Nasr. “In this world where people talk about brand safety, we work with premium partners. The success of our advertising product has been the native look and feel of it. Our audiences are used to real time content and seeing a goal that was scored 60 seconds ago is very much in keeping with that.”
Refining the user experience
Nasr credits the increased daily usage times on Twitter with its introduction of new products, including the filtered timeline feature which was introduced last year and alerts users who have been off the platform for several hours to around five or 10 big stories and significant tweets that have emerged since they last logged on.
Another area where Twitter has had to work to prevent its immediacy from creating an adverse experience for the user is in avoiding “spoiler” tweets on popular TV shows, notably HBO’s Game of Thrones. “Every Sunday night in America, a new Game of Thrones episode comes out and it is followed up every Monday in the UK and people get very upset with spoilers,” says Nasr, who joined Twitter from YouTube in 2012, becoming UK sales director, and has headed its London operation since November 2015.
Twitter, realising that this is causing people to stay off its platform, has introduced a feature that should prevent spoilers by screening selected words from their screens. “You get Game of Thrones fans going to their see settings every Sunday and applying a list of Game of Thrones keywords that they want muted so that they can then use Twitter.”
This diet of sports and entertainment is important in lightening the tone on Twitter which, unlike Facebook and Instagram, does not inspire users to habitually upload happy imagery of friends and family.
Twitter will celebrate a decade of hashtags partly because it believes that they allow people to break out of their ideological bubbles (“hashtags smash echo chambers”, says Nasr) and engage with points of view from across the political spectrum.
It’s not just Donald Trump – numerous other world leaders and politicians have Twitter accounts (including 90% of UK MPs). Nearly all Premier League footballers do too, as do countless pop stars, comedians and care workers. Nasr is especially proud of the @WeNurses account, which has helped British nurses get their concerns in front of health ministers.
“If you hold a mirror up to society right now it’s not the loveliest place,” he says. “But there’s a lot of good going on too.”
Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell