Last week, Twitter announced that it plans to shut down looping video app Vine.
It’s part of a cost-cutting plan that will see the micro-blogging site cut nine per cent of its workforce as it aims to become profitable. It’s also a sign that Twitter doesn’t know how to turn itself into a sustainable company.
What has always set Twitter’s platforms apart is their constraints.
Twitter’s 140-character limit may have been the result of the limited size of an SMS message but, even as smartphones have made it redundant, it’s not just a gimmick.
Limitations foster creativity; the constraints of Twitter have led to a unique style of humor and helped the site retain its focus on immediacy.
Vine was an extension of that. By putting a six-second limit on videos, creators were forced to be, well, creative.
At their best, Vines could be mesmerizing—surreal moments that could be looped dozens of times.
But Vine has its problems: Vines embedded in websites tend to slow things down and don’t always work they way they’re supposed to – sometimes they won’t play when you click on them, sometimes they won’t stop playing when you click on them.
Vine also had a discoverability problem. It’s hard to find good videos on Vine without making a real effort to find them.
The other problem with six-second videos is that making them requires a lot more effort than sharing something on Facebook or writing a Tweet. Most people who watch Vines will never make one.
The result was a small community of deeply committed and engaged users—mostly content creators. And while some Vines went viral, for most people, they were just another type of moving image embedded on another website.
It’s a problem that’s indicative of Twitter’s own struggles. Twitter’s constraints and the ability for users to make one-sided connections (I can follow you without you having to follow me back) has created a highly engaged, highly influential user base but it’s also limited growth.
Joining Twitter can be a relatively intimidating experience. How do you find the best people to follow?
It’s a question that Twitter seems unable to answer. Twitter doesn’t know much about its users as Facebook and LinkedIn and it doesn’t know why individual users follow each other.
After all, Twitter is different things to different people.
For some users it’s a place to follow the news; for other users, it’s a place to tell jokes; for some users it’s a real social network or communications platform; for others it’s a promotional vehicle
Pleasing all of those audiences—often seen as different Twitters (journalist Twitter, night Twitter, Black Twitter, teen Twitter, weird Twitter, etc.)—is impossible.
It also can’t be forgotten that Twitter has a massive harassment problem; the site is infested with aggressive trolls. For many users, threats have become part of the user experience.
Twitter’s biggest problem, though, is that it remains dependent on growth.
The problem is that Twitter is, or at least should be, a mature service. Twitter is an established, well-known brand. Anyone who is interested in using has tried it by now. It has no real room to grow.
The problem is that while it’s big—it has 317 million monthly active users—it’s still not big enough to turn a profit.
That leaves two potential options. Twitter will have to make major changes to keep growing or it will have to find a way to make a profit without continued growth.
It’s tough place to be. If Twitter tries to change its platform, it risks alienating its audience and losing its identity, if it doesn’t, it risks drowning in stagnation. Either way, it could end with Twitter itself shutting down.
And that would be a shame. Twitter has become the most unique, and the most interesting, of the major social networks.
There’s no substitute for Twitter. At least there are substitutes for Vine.