As Twitter finds itself in the middle of another firestorm over free speech and accusations of rampant racial and sexist abuse targeting even its high-profile celebrity users, the San Francisco-based social network continues to struggle with finding a business model that can keep up with the explosive growth of rivals such as Facebook.
The banning of a highly controversial right-leaning provocateur and media personality named Milo Yiannopoulos, who used the handle @nero on Twitter, has been seen as an attempt to address some of the worst behavioural excesses the social network enables. Twitter has made many moves, in the boardroom and in the development of its service, to try to reinvigorate user growth. But critics claim the company has a blind spot and may not appreciate the negative impact of its ineffective efforts to put a lid on abusive trolls who can be whipped into a frenzy of harassment by figures such as Mr. Yiannopoulos.
In the first quarter of 2016, the company reported revenue growth of 36 per cent, $595-million (U.S.), and also had to cut its forecast for revenue in the second quarter even further to a tepid 17-per-cent increase (in the second quarter of 2015 it achieved 61-per-cent revenue growth).
Revenue is slowing in part because user growth has been off target for some time. While Twitter added five million new users in its first quarter this year, CFO Anthony Noto cautioned that there was some seasonal and marketing effects behind that figure, which by some measures had actually declined in the quarter previous.
Twitter has about 310 million users who log in once a month, but ever since the company crossed 300 million monthly active users (MAUs) in the first quarter of 2015 it has struggled to keep its growth curve pointed upward. In its fiscal year of 2014, Twitter started with 255 million monthly active users and grew 12.5 per cent, adding 33 million users to finish above 288 million. Between the first quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016, the company added barely eight million new users, just 2.65-per-cent growth.
By contrast, since 2014, social-media rival Facebook has ballooned from 1.2 billion monthly active users to more than 1.65 billion MAUs, almost 30-per-cent growth. And upstart Snapchat appears to have passed Twitter in the daily active-user segment, hitting 150 million to edge the estimated 140 million daily users on Twitter.
CEO Jack Dorsey responded to these twin slowdowns with promises for new products focusing on "live" events integrating video and tweets together, and Twitter has recently made good on that claim signing deals with professional tennis, U.S. college football and is now working with CBS to livestream the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Using product announcements that promise to turn the ship around has long been Twitter's go-to move. Former CEO Dick Costolo would often roll out new data-partnership efforts, the company would add features such as polls and embedded video and acquired mobile video companies such as Vine and Periscope. Recently, Mr. Dorsey has tinkered with the sacred character limit, allowing photo links to not count against the 140 letters each post can contain, and even with the "live" timeline, adding in more algorithmic ordering of the most "important" content at the top of feeds rather than just the most recent.
According to many critics, what it hasn't done much of is police its users. "We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behaviour on Twitter. We agree," the company wrote in a statement that didn't directly address the Yiannopoulos ban decision but did say: "Over the past 48 hours in particular, we've seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension."
The company has a policy of not commenting on the number of accounts it bans, or on any individual. Feminist writer and digital activist Shanley Kane has argued for years that when Twitter is fighting for every new user, it's actually in the company's interest to not crack down on the so-called "sock puppet" armies of fake or temporary accounts (typified by either an egg-shaped avatar or the use of a still of an animé character) that are used to spray invective on the network. She posted examples that show whenever she is the target of an abusive campaign, Twitter sees millions of new impressions.
Still, even if Twitter does treat user safety and crackdowns of abuse as a product critical to its growth, is it too late to change a reputation built up over 10 years of weak attempts?