A tale of two Twitters
On September 27, US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ended decades of distance between the two countries with a phone call. Obama announced the call via a press conference. Rouhani tweeted about it.
It's unlikely that many of his constituents saw the tweet -- and not just because Rouhani, or whoever manages his account, deleted it shortly after it was posted. Iran has blocked access to Twitter since 2009. Anyone wishing to access the service must do so by circumventing the government's restrictions or, apparently, achieving public office. Twitter is at once a useful public relations tool and a forbidden social network, in Iran at least.
Twitter is built upon these dualities. The company's newly public S-1 filing makes that clear by identifying many of its strengths, such as its real-time nature and mobile prowess, as its greatest weaknesses.
Consider its role in politics. Twitter users are simultaneously consuming, creating, and spreading news -- this proved powerful during the Arab Spring. But it also reinforces restrictive governments' belief that allowing access to the service might not be in their best interest.
"Governments have sought, and may in the future seek, to censor content available through our products and services, restrict access to our products and services from their country entirely or impose other restrictions that may affect the accessibility of our products and services for an extended period of time or indefinitely," Twitter says in its S-1 filing, adding later that "we believe that access to Twitter has been blocked in these countries primarily for political reasons."
Iran is one such country. It has managed to twist Twitter to suit its purposes by keeping the service out of its country and then using it as a glorified public relations tool. Rouhani didn't need to allow Twitter into Iran in order to use it for this purpose -- he was able to tweet what he wanted to tweet while millions of Iranians go without access to the network.
Then there's Twitter's mobile prowess. The company is said to make some 65 percent of its advertising revenue from mobile devices, and expects that those revenues will grow ever larger as nascent markets support the service. It expects to grow in nascent markets faster than it grows in the US, bringing international markets' paltry 25 percent share of the company's revenues up in the process. Twitter is better at mobile than Facebook was when it went public, and that prowess might prove useful as more and more people access the Internet for the first time.
The problem is that many of these Internet newcomers are accessing the Web via limited devices that don't support the company's advertisements. Social media's quintessentially mobile upstart is finding it difficult to monetize markets that access the Internet primarily through mobile devices.
And then there is perhaps the most important duality of them all: The battle between Twitter and TWTR, as the company will be listed on whichever stock exchange it decides upon.
Nowhere is this battle more obvious than the conflict between TWTR's need to spur increased engagement with its products and Twitter users' desire to continue using the service the way they've been using it for years.
The company describes its plight in its S-1 filing:
We have developed a global platform for public self-expression and conversation in real time, and the market for our products and services is relatively new and may not develop as expected, if at all. People who are not our users may not understand the value of our products and services and new users may initially find our product confusing. There may be a perception that our products and services are only useful to users who tweet, or to influential users with large audiences. Convincing potential new users of the value of our products and services is critical to increasing our user base and to the success of our business.TWTR needs more users -- it currently has just 218 million monthly active users, a far cry from Facebook's 1 billion tally -- and it needs to become a mainstream destination instead of a place where strange people mourn the "death" of spambots and parrot news from around the Web. Or, as I put it in a post describing the company's attempts to attract new users with services like Vine and Twitter #music:
Twitter is spreading its wings. Now it just needs to discover how many of its users are ready to leave the nest — and how many more might decide to join its flock.Despite the challenges created by building a platform atop all of these contradictions, Twitter's ability to become whatever its users want it to become might also be the service's greatest asset. No single description of Twitter encapsulates the service's scope or purpose. Its usage varies from person to person as much as it does from country to country.
Now the only question is whether or not it's a good way a company that hopes to raise $1 billion via a public offering can convince investors that its many risks, challenges, and contradictions are actually strengths, opportunities, and a healthy fluidity.
There are two Twitters. It's up to users, governments, and investors to determine which they're interacting with at any given time.
[Image via Wikimedia]