If you are like most Americans, two things are probably true: (a) You have heard that Twitter is going public today, and creating a bunch of new millionaires and billionaires with a stock sale that values the company at $14 billion, and (b) You did not get this news from Twitter.
That's because, although Twitter is generally put in the pantheon of the world's great social networks, it's still a fairly niche service. (Roughly 100 million people around the world use Twitter every day, less than a seventh of Facebook's 728 million daily active users.) Twitter is, of course, used obsessively by journalists and newshounds, which is one reason the company's IPO has attracted so much coverage. But when it comes to normal people — people who get their news from Matt Lauer and their witticisms from Jon Stewart — Twitter still hasn't become a routine part of everyday life.
When Twitter was private, that didn't matter much. Having Justin Bieber on Twitter was much better for the company's prospects than having a hundred thousand middle-aged Wisconsinites. But now, in order to grow as a public company, it needs to become essential for those ordinary people, too. Twitter still needs Miley Cyrus, but now, it needs moms, too.
By "moms," I don't necessarily mean literal mothers. I mean all the people — male and female, young and old — who use Twitter in the way my mom does. My mom has a Twitter account, but she's only tweeted a handful of times, and while she'll sometimes browse the feeds of the celebrities and family members she follows, she doesn't use Twitter as a primary social network. For her, that's Facebook, where pictures of her nephews and nieces are posted, where she connects with old friends and wishes her neighbors happy birthday. If Facebook disappeared from the Earth tomorrow, my mom would be distraught. If Twitter vanished, she'd barely notice.
It's hard to remember now, but a half-decade ago, Facebook was the cool social network, reserved for college kids and those who wanted to act like them. But then, over the next few years, the company shocked its users by opening itself to companies, making photos and videos more prominent, shoving non-chronological news and ads into our feeds, and in all ways making Facebook more pedestrian and less like the service early users had fallen in love with. The changes were bad for people who liked Facebook the way it was, but they were great for Facebook. User growth spiked, advertisers paid big bucks to get their ads on the site, and now, the company is worth nearly $120 billion, with 1.2 billion users.
Twitter could get there one day, but it will need to adapt. As of today, there are millions of people who use Twitter only sparingly, or get scared off after an initial trial period by the service's clubby nature. These people sign up for Twitter, thinking it will help them sort through current events or keep track of celebrities, then see a stream of acronyms, hard-to-parse hashtags, and in-jokes floating past them, and go right back to Facebook, which is easier to understand and use. According to the New York Times, "A large percentage of new Twitter users give up on the service within the first three days." And despite the millions of users who stick around, Twitter is still considered an "experimental" destination for giant ad agencies, whereas the corporations who advertise on Facebook consider it as necessary and basic as paying for ads on TV and in magazines. (Twitter's ad sales are growing quickly, but it still had only $270 million in sales last year, compared to Google's $33 billion and Facebook's $4 billion.)
"I would like to see Twitter make its service more essential to a broader public," an ad executive told the Wall Street Journal today. "Currently it's too narrow and inside baseball with a small sliver of users making most of the content."
I have no doubt that Twitter has pondered its niche status — thought about the fact that, for example, it's national news when a septuagenarian is a savvy tweeter — and decided to act. In the months leading up to today's IPO, Twitter has introduced a bunch of features (inline photos, conversation-connecting lines, beefed-up advertising analytics) meant to make it more comprehensible to the mainstream user, and more appealing to advertisers who want to be spotted on a mass medium.
Farhad Manjoo thinks the massification of Twitter will make it boring and pedestrian, that it will sap it of its enigmatic appeal. But that same enigma is why Twitter hasn't gotten Facebook-level popularity yet. And, more to the point of the company's financial future, it's why the company is having growth issues. Twitter has what Facebook and Google don't — an air of exclusivity, a use as a breaking-news tool and a promotional platform for the cultural elite — but it hasn't yet become ubiquitous. In the social-network scheme, Twitter is Chipotle; Facebook is McDonald's.
The massification of Twitter won't be harmless. It will require introducing lots more features that make the site look more like other social networks. It will mean putting aside the pride of the company's founders, who liked the fact that Twitter was limited, esoteric, and most accessible by the already-tech-savvy. It will mean angering the power users (and, yes, journalists) who like old-style Twitter just fine.
According to the Times, Twitter is still on the fence about its own identity, but is leaning toward niche over mass.
Twitter officials acknowledge that they need to make their service easier to use. However, despite rumors of a new interface in the works, insiders caution that users are more likely to see a series of tweaks than a complete redesign.
That's not necessarily a bad strategy. A niche Twitter could still be wildly successful, and a mass one wouldn't necessarily mint money. LinkedIn has roughly the same number of active users as Twitter, and investors on Wall Street love it. (LinkedIn also has pricey subscription models, something Twitter could never get away with.) And Yahoo, the mass-iest of mass dot-coms, is struggling to attain Twitter's cultural relevance, even though it's the biggest site on the web. Size isn't everything for social-media networks. But it's a lot. And for Twitter — a company that wants to be the preeminent communication tool of the digital age — making it to a billion users (or a $100 billion valuation) is going to require some compromises.
Facebook had to make the mass-or-niche choice years ago, and it chose mass. It knows what Twitter is just now learning: that lowering the barriers to entry will evoke howls from in-the-know users, but it will attract many more for each one it pushes away. It knows that for every tech-savvy Times reader who snickers at the paper's dumbed-down description of what Twitter is ("every 140-character tweet is delivered in chronological order"), there are dozens who genuinely need these explanations to understand what the big deal is.
Now that Twitter has gone public, it has reached corporate adulthood. But until the company decides to attract more actual adults — the mechanics and Costco cashiers and high-school-math teachers who populate Facebook with status updates and photos of their vacations — it will remain just out of reach of the mainstream. For Twitter's long-term prospects, it doesn't really matter what happens in today's stock trading. What matters is whether Twitter, now owned in part by the general public, will start acting like a company for regular people.