Not watching Twitter

FOR months Twitter, the micro-blogging service, has received the kind of free attention of which most companies can only dream. Politicians, corporate bosses, activists and citizens turn to the platform to catch every tweet of America’s new president, who has become the service’s de facto spokesman. “The whole world is watching Twitter,” boasted Jack Dorsey (pictured), the company’s chief executive, as he presented its results on February 9th. He has little else to brag about.

But Donald Trump has not provided the kind of boost the struggling firm really needs. It reported slowing revenue growth and a loss of $167m. User growth has been sluggish, too: it added just 2m users in that period. Facebook added 72m. The day of the results, shares in Twitter dropped by 12%. Because news outlets around the world already report on Mr Trump’s most sensational tweets, many do not feel compelled to join the platform to discover them. Others are put off by mobs of trolls and reams of misinformation.

And not even Mr Trump could change the cold, hard truth about Twitter: that it can never be Facebook. True, it has become one of the most important services for public and political communication among its 319m monthly users. It played an important role in the Arab spring and movements such as Black Lives Matter. But the platform’s freewheeling nature makes it hard to spin gold from. In fact, really trying to do so—by packing Twitter feeds with advertising, say—would drive away users.

Business as unusual

Twitter’s latest results are likely to encourage those who think it should never have become a publicly listed company, and want it to consider alternate models of ownership, such as a co-operative. They view Twitter as a kind of public utility—a “people’s platform”—the management of which should concern public interests rather more than commercial ones. If the company were co-operatively owned by users, it would be released from short-term pressure to please its investors and meet earnings targets.

Though some co-ops have shown themselves resilient, they are generally thought to be less dynamic—a shortcoming of democratic governance. Yet Sasha Costanza-Chock, an activist who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes that Twitter users could also come up with features that would rescue it from its most toxic elements, such as harassment and hate speech. Others envision a futuristic co-op—or, inevitably, “co-op 2.0”—in which responsibility is split between idealistic entrepreneurs, who control product innovation, and users, who have the say on such matters as data protection. Even if such models could be made to work, Twitter is unlikely to become a co-op soon: its market capitalisation still exceeds $12bn, an amount users can hardly dream of scraping together. Yet the debate about what to do with the service has stoked another, long-simmering discussion in the startup world: whether firms should always aim to go public. “We have become very myopic about what it means to be a corporation,” explains Albert Wenger, a partner at Union Square Ventures, a technology-investment firm. Armin Steuernagel, founder of Purpose Capital, a consultancy, says he sees more and more start-ups questioning whether they should opt for conventional ownership structures.

Options abound. Online, Etsy, Kickstarter and Wikipedia, among others, have pursued set-ups that allow them to keep their social benefit front-and-centre. But old media outlets can offer lessons too: many publications in Europe, including The Economist, have ownership structures that isolate them to some degree from commercial interests.

As for Twitter, it is likely to be snapped up once its value is low enough. Although the most likely buyer is another tech firm, surprises cannot be excluded. Users should start thinking like a traditional labour union, says Mr Wenger. If they stage a virtual walkout, they might have the bargaining power to change its governance structure. #Squadgoals.