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Sale or no sale, changes could come to Twitter users

FILE PHOTO: People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo

 

NEW YORK / AP

Sale or no sale, Twitter users are bound to see changes as the beleaguered communications service tries to broaden its appeal to more people and advertisers.
A new owner could clean up Twitter and curb some of the nastiness that’s become synonymous with it. Or perhaps a new owner would just show more ads. Or let it languish while it mines the best of what Twitter now has into its existing products and services. All of this is speculation, of course, and there might not even be a new owner. Twitter’s stock has plunged after rumoured bidders are, well, rumoured to be no longer interested.
A new parent — whether that’s Google (huh?), Salesforce (who?) or Disney (hmm…) — could inject fresh life into a 10-year-old company that’s never turned a profit and remains confounding to many people. Of course, none of these potential suitors have acknowledged interest in Twitter, let alone their plans for it. Even if Twitter stays independent, drastic changes to its service might just be what Twitter needs to be competitive with Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. How might it change?
Facebook’s absorption of Instagram and WhatsApp in recent years could offer clues. Both services have kept separate identities, to an extent, and have experienced user growth. But slowly, they are acquiring Facebook-like features. For example, Instagram no longer presents feeds chronologically; they are now sorted much like Facebook’s news feed, using some secret formula known only to Facebook.
Though the change has turned off some early Instagram users, its user base has soared, to 500 million as of June. That’s nearly 200 million more than Twitter, even though Instagram is three years younger. As Instagram gets more users and a mainstream appeal, its content has diluted somewhat. But many of the street photographers, graffiti artists and tween mini-celebrities who made Instagram what it is are still there — maybe just harder to find.
Twitter has never turned a profit, and whoever buys it will need to fix this. That means boosting the user base, so advertisers would follow. That also could mean better targeting, so that ad rates go up.
Google, anyone? The search giant is the leader in online ads. Imagine what its might and muscle could do to Twitter’s ad business. YouTube hardly had any ads when Google bought it; now, ads are so prevalent that YouTube is able to charge $10 a month for an ad-free version called Red. Instagram has also inserted ads into users’ feeds of perfectly composed snapshots featuring everything from cappuccino foam to seafoam. It started out slowly with a carefully curated ad here and there, but today you’re not likely to avoid ads when opening the app. Jonathan Cowperthwait, a Twitter user since 2008, said he’d be worried if Google bought Twitter because the online search giant “is the worst” at social services that aim to foster online interactions, beyond email. Its Google Plus service never took off; Orkut and Dodgeball closed. Cowperthwait said that rather than let Twitter live independently, Google might “try to shoehorn it back into their own social product.”
Salesforce, a company that provides internet services to businesses, has also been mentioned as a contender, leading to a lot of head-scratching among users. Would Twitter become a business product, used for customer service and marketing instead of revolutions, neo-Nazi memes and political outbursts? “Salesforce is a very technology-driven company,” eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson said. “It seems they would want (Twitter) mostly for the data that Twitter has.”
Remember MySpace? It was — the — social network before Facebook came along. News Corp., the stodgy media conglomerate, bought it for $580 million in 2005. But users started falling off as MySpace failed to keep up with Facebook’s speedy innovations. After layoffs and failed relaunches, News Corp. sold the fallen giant for $35 million in 2011, and that was just about the end of it. It’s not unthinkable that Twitter could suffer the same fate under a big media company.

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