Why is Facebook still winning after all these years and able to overcome things like fake news debacles, while Twitter seemingly can’t seem to catch a break?
I’m a digital marketer by trade (though more an entrepreneur than anything else these days) and always keep myself as up-to-date as possible with what it going on around the Internet as it pertains to the big three – Google, Facebook, and Twitter. I am an active user of all three, both personally and for my business.
I first signed up to Twitter in 2008, though did not really start using it until I started fulltime in digital marketing in 2010. Fast forward over 6 years and I have close to 55,000 tweets, about 24,000 followers, and I actually owe the platform a lot for my career over the years.
That said, I’ve been increasingly disheartened, as have many of my friends, by the apparent failures of Twitter the company over the last year or two. From many of the product decisions to some of their ways-of-being that I will go into throughout this piece, Twitter keeps failing as a company. While I’m not yet to the point where I’m leaving Twitter (the community is still way too valuable to me, though increasingly less), I do think that Twitter needs to make some major changes in the next year or so to survive as a company, much less a publicly traded company.
Instead of the usual grousing about Twitter’s many shortcomings alone, I want to compare Twitter to Facebook.
We all use Facebook, whether we admit it or not. They’ve recently had some bad press, such as mis-reporting video metrics and fake news (Mark’s original message which he later backed away from and this NYT piece are a good start), but they’ve by and large been able to maintain their stock price and standing with the rest of the world as a reputable place.
Why have they been able to do that whereas Twitter keeps taking a beating every single day in the press?
Here are my thoughts on it all.
Facebook requires you to use your true identity for your profile. While this has at times been an issue for very few people (and Facebook has apologized for this and sought to make it right), by and large it works because you know exactly who you are speaking with (and who is potentially trolling you).
Twitter, on the other hand, does not require a true identity. You can be whoever you want to be on Twitter. You can mass create networks of bot accounts that retweet and automatically respond to each other. You can set these networks to automatically favorite specific tweets that use a certain word. You can harass whoever you want and no one will know it is you.
Imagine that. You can be a well-thought-of conservative Christian and act like the complete opposite on Twitter under a pseudonym, and no one will know it’s you.
In my opinion (it’s my blog, I get to have those), Facebook’s requirement of using your real name keeps the trolls at bay. I can also decide who sees which posts of mine and can easily remove their comments from posts if some slip through. Twitter has done a bit in this area with their Mute or Block buttons, but those still feel very heavy-handed.
What’s the solution? I think Twitter should move towards requiring everyone on their platform to use their verifiable real name. But they cannot do that until my next point is resolved.
Controlling The Message
Twitter is a publicly traded company. So is Facebook. But Facebook’s market cap is $361.62 billion while Twitter’s is $12.4 billion, as of the time of this piece being written on January 8, 2017. That’s right, Facebook’s market cap is 30x Twitter’s.
Facebook controls the conversation around their stock price, whereas Twitter does not. I as well as Anil Dash (full disclosure: my wife works for Trello (update: acquired by Atlassian) which was spun out of Fog Creek Software, where Anil is the current CEO, in 2014) along with many others think that Twitter needs to change the conversation around the metrics that matter for the platform so that Twitter actually has a chance of moving forward as a publicly traded company. I’m not convinced that Twitter wants to remain a standalone publicly traded company, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Facebook’s stock price is driven off of its revenues. As I linked to above, Facebook prints money every quarter and more and more each quarter. They made a bet on mobile in 2012 (which seemed like it was late) and that has paid off (literally) in spades.
Twitter’s stock price is driven (into the ground) by their fixation on user numbers and new users. They have thus far either been unable or unwilling to try to change this conversation. When you don’t try to control the conversation, others come up with the conversation for you and that most likely will not be the conversation that you want to have. And if you let it go on even a little bit, you’ll have an incredibly hard time changing it back.
Twitter has awesome revenue numbers, even with a broken ad platform.
Unlike others, I don’t really care that their growth percentage has slowed. It is incredibly hard to keep growth percentages high as you have a larger base to work off of. Very few companies (Facebook is among them so far, by the way) are able to maintain their growth percentages over the years.
When new Twitter earnings come out every quarter though, what number is most often reported on? Their new user growth. This is like back in the late 90s when companies would build huge audiences and then go public, only to bomb when people realized they didn’t have a revenue model. Companies still do this today, by the way, and I’m flabbergasted by it.
Twitter needs to control the conversation and move it away from a) new user growth, b) all of their executives jumping ship, c) how much they are paying to retain or pay out employees, and d) their spam and abuse problems, which take us back to the first point and leads into my next point.
Twitter needs to turn the conversation to revenue and how that is growing, and they need to invest down in fixing their ad platform.
To illustrate my point, when I worked at Zillow I always listened to and read our quarterly reports (note: I worked there for two years and no longer own any stock because of how we parted way).
Zillow has an incredible audience size which for a long time is what has driven the stock price. However, at some point that tops out especially for a US-only company where about 350 million people total live. At some point, you’re saturated as far as audience and you run into the same problems that Twitter has, where those numbers seem to stagnate.
Zillow has done a fantastic job of controlling the conversation as they have also slowly moved to talking more about revenue and market share and away from raw audience numbers. Spencer Rascoff, their CEO who I think the world of to this day, does a phenomenal job every quarter of moving the conversation from profit (you can always juice profit by cutting expenses, he says) to revenue. They also do some very smart things like not breaking out revenue by business channel so that they can continue to invest in areas that are not yet hugely profitable (Google has done this very well over the years though recently their side projects have come under incredible scrutiny), but they are also able to do that because they control the conversation.
Being a publicly traded company where anyone can own their stock, Twitter will not be able to move forward and deal with issues as they need to be dealt with until they understand that they need to control the conversation around their metrics.
Decisive Decision Making
Facebook has a mantra of “move fast and break things” which has kept them nimble over the years even as their headcount and user count has grown dramatically. While Mark Zuckerberg has internally changed their mantra to “Move fast with stable infra” because of performance and uptime issues in the past, that has not caught on publicly (thank god, and likely because most of the public are not software engineers. I’ll rant on that another day) as much as “Move fast and break things” has.
Twitter’s mantra, on the other hand, seems to be “don’t build anything new and ignore all of our users”. While there are glimpses that some internally do care (Jack recently copied AirBNB’s CEO and asked for feedback publicly), Twitter still does not seem to have a real roadmap for where to go next and thus they do not do anything.
Want Twitter to handle abuse? Great, here are Moments!
Want Twitter to handle abuse? Great, Live TV it is.
See my point?
Facebook on the other hand has its core tenets and keeps to them (next section), which allows them to move much faster. They also seem to have their operations on lock, as evidenced by how fast they are able to get decisions made and new things done.
The fake news stuff really broke right after the recent US election. Facebook’s stock took a big hit. And guess what?
A month later they started rolling out across the whole platform ways to crowdsource if something is coming from a dubious source and thus shouldn’t trusted (how’s that for a super long anchor text, SEOs?).
Facebook has always made quick decisions, even if it meant having to apologize some later. Their changes always have bugs (such as when they removed my friend Bryant’s sharing of George Michael dying because it was “spam”), but they are always quick to correct them.
Facebook also goes a step further and does what it thinks is right for its users. Remember a few years ago when Facebook was inundated by sites like Upworthy and Buzzfeed (who is still around and doing quite well) who reverse-engineered the FB timeline algorithm and were getting everything they posted to go viral?
Call me crazy, but I think it’s time for Twitter to have their own Panda update whereby they remove the low quality (aka spammy) users from their platform. At the same time, they’ll have to control the message around WHY they are doing it and why they think it is the right move.
No one will argue that Purple Egg with the username of exsomaniac173214 with zero followers and has been tweeting porn and abusing others by calling them names should not be removed from the platform.
I also find it unbelievable that Twitter does not seem willing to invest in the machine learning necessary (and it’s probably not even that advanced) to remove or shadowban abusers from the platform. I obviously have no insight into Twitter’s tech stack, but this seems basic for a company like Twitter in 2017.
Consistency in Application of Rules
Bare bones, Facebook applies its rules across the board while Twitter seems to pick and choose when it makes sense for them. For example, just recently Twitter banned Martin Shkreli for harassing a female reporter. I’m actually a bit amazed that Twitter actually did anything, though likely they knew they were going to start catching more flak since Lauren Duca has a decent size following thanks to her amazing work at Teen Vogue.
But these sorts of actions by Twitter are few and far between. Over the last few months there have been a handful of people publicly removed from Twitter for harassing/abusing others, but there are many many more stories of abusers not being removed from the platform, likely because they are not big public figures.
But let me put it this way – just because an abuser is not a public figure does not make them any less of an abuser or the abuse less harmful.
There is a precedent set for dealing with those who violate guidelines (if you read Twitter’s, they pay lip service to not allowing abuse on their platform. We all know this is just lip service as they obviously don’t follow it). Just look at Google.
A bit of nerd SEO knowledge here that hopefully I can help you understand. Google has a published set of webmaster guidelines. Within these guidelines (which they do periodically update and then sites like SearchEngineLand and Search Engine Roundtable often cover), they set out what is within and what is not within their guidelines.
Let’s use link building as an example. Links into your site increase your site’s ability to rank, full stop. Without links, it’s very hard to rank, said Gary Ilyes of Google. Because of this, and because you can make so much money from Google, people in the past have done very manipulative things to build links to try to rank.
Over the years Google has done many things to reduce this spam, such as their Penguin algorithm, but they also do something else – they apply manual penalties. Google Chrome was even caught sponsoring links and thus was given a 30 day manual demotion by the Google spam team, at the time headed by Matt Cutts. They penalized their own product for going against their guidelines.
Much like Facebook, they are not perfect. They miss a lot and get a lot of things wrong. A lot of sites have wrongfully been caught up in their Penguin algorithm. But what they have managed to do is instill fear into the vast majority of people who would otherwise do things outside of Google’s guidelines.
The message is clear – “If you violate our guidelines, we will likely penalize you and hurt your livelihood”. Once again, not perfectly executed on, but people know about it.
Now let’s think back to Twitter. What happens when a random person harasses a stranger?
Nine times out of ten, absolutely nothing.
What happens when a site like Damongo spams the hell out of Twitter to try to game the algorithm and growth hack their way to success?
Absolutely nothing. I cannot tell you the number of Damongo spam accounts I’ve reported over the months, because I can’t count that high.
Twitter needs to learn from Google and start mass banning people for a set period of time if they violate the standards. At some point, spammers will give up. If someone is a repeat offender, ban them for life. But I bet that the vast majority of spam and abuse will be curbed by doing this.
And finally, Twitter needs to stop allowing people to create accounts via bots. Facebook has dealt with this in the past, and I have not seen many spam Facebook accounts in recent times, so obviously they have figured it out to an extent.
Twitter, please do what my therapist told me to do and be wise, not smart. Learn from those who have tackled issues similar to what you are currently facing.
Learn how to control your message publicly from Zillow.
Learn how to control spam from Facebook.
I love what Twitter has brought to the world. As I said at the beginning of this piece, I owe a lot of my career to the community that exists on Twitter, and I want to see Twitter flourish as a company.
What other platform has helped to bring down authoritarian regimes? Where else gives a voice to those in places like Aleppo or Egypt where terrible things are happening, thus bringing them to the world’s attention?
Twitter needs to grow up as a company and make some very hard decisions. As I said earlier, what I think they need to learn to do is:
- Control the conversation around metrics so that they can work on what matters.
- Work towards requiring a real identity. It’s worked for Facebook.
- Make decisive decisions even if you may have to backpedal a bit.
- Learn from other companies, like Google and Facebook, around curbing spam and changing user behavior.
I hope this helps someone out there. If anyone at Twitter wants to contact me for further thoughts (I’ll also be back in San Francisco the 18th-20th and am happy to come to Twitter HQ to discuss in person), please feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org.
Full disclosure: my wife and I own a very small number of Facebook shares and have for over a year now. I am long-FB and one of my biggest financial regrets is not buying it when it was around $18 back in 2012.