Twitter lost the average Joe and Jane (and they may never return)

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Twitter turns 10 next March, but it’s still acting like a toddler unwilling to accept change. It’s losing users faster than it’s adding them. What are they missing? If Twitter is still struggling to answer that question, why should the rest of us bother?

Almost 10 years and 302 million active users (MAU) after its launch, Twitter remains a confusing, social media free-for-all. While it’s embracing change on the periphery, its namesake platform remains an increasingly lackluster and frustrating experience for users. If you don’t regularly use Twitter now, the odds are you never will.

Its poor user experience is matched by equally disappointing financial results. Despite surpassing that 300 MAU mark, ad revenue recently declined for the first time since the company’s IPO in late 2013 and the current annual growth rate of its user base (18 percent) just isn’t enough to feed the appetite of Wall Street.

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None of that gets to the root of what’s really wrong with Twitter, though. Most people either love Twitter for its quirkiness and insistence on brevity or hate it because they can’t easily find anything of value. After almost a decade on the social media scene, for most people there’s no compelling reason to use Twitter. Whereas Facebook probably has hundreds of millions of users who log in monthly for one specific reason or another, it’s fair to assume those same people can get by without Twitter altogether.

After all, what are they missing? If Twitter is still struggling to answer that most basic question, why should the rest of us even bother?

On Twitter you never know what you’re missing

Birds of a feather flock together on Twitter, which means you miss out on tweets from birds of a different feather and all the useful and insightful tweets that are posted to the platform every minute of every day. Surfacing the best, most important or relevant tweets has become increasingly prohibitive.

Forget about any fear of missing out, on Twitter you are guaranteed to be missing something important and much more interesting than what you see in your feed. Twitter leaves almost everything up to you, which is great in theory but in practice it’s running Twitter off the rails.

It takes a lot of work and patience to be on Twitter and most people are giving up. Fewer than one out of every three people who have signed up for Twitter are using it at least once a month today. That’s 302 million MAUs out of more than 1 billion accounts established to date. As New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote recently: “Twitter may be alone among large social networks in turning away more people than it attracts.”

Twitter can’t make users go it alone

In a world of algorithms and human curation, finding the most important tweets or following conversations on Twitter is a chore that people shouldn’t have to deal with on their own. Failure and fatigue sets in too quickly for Twitter to keep most users engaged.

Twitter, to be fair, has improved significantly over the past couple years. Users have some features to be thankful for -- group messaging, video (capture, edit and share), multiple photos, a new profile design and others -- but the company isn’t doing enough to attract more users and increase total time spent on its platform. Almost everything that comes to Twitter now just feels too little and too late.

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Most of the exciting and more inspired changes have come via acquisitions such as Periscope and Vine. Feeds are prettier now, with more photos and videos, but the general experience is as convoluted as ever. Instead of learning, engaging and exploring, it’s too easy to gloss over and scroll through your feed until you hit a wall.

For years, Twitter has been trying to solve this problem with an array of A/B testing and experimentation, but none of those efforts have resulted in meaningful changes. A growing lineup of executives have succumbed to an irrational fear of upsetting the vocal minority when it’s the silent majority that they need to serve.

Instead, users have been largely ignored as the company scrambles to build an advertising business that’s already showing cracks in the surface. For most people and advertisers, Twitter just isn’t a must-do or must-have social network. It probably could have been if it hadn’t waited so long to get its act together.

Twitter still dominates live events

Old habits die hard and even I’m not sure why Twitter still gets so much of my attention. Sure, it has its strengths as a medium for journalists, but that’s not all I care about. My instinct is still to go on Twitter during and in the immediate aftermath of major events. When the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship and when the windows in my house began to shake recently (it was a minor earthquake), I went to Twitter right away for answers and entertainment. And when unspeakable violence struck at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., Twitter kept me informed in the immediate aftermath with details of the massacre and accounts from those on the ground or reporting from elsewhere.

Twitter is unmatched when it comes to distributing real-time information, but finding that information as it unfolds is the tricky part. The company is working on yet another solution for that problem with a project called Lightning that will bring event-based curated content to the center of its platform, according to BuzzFeed.

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Kevin Weil, Twitter’s senior vice president of product, admits that’s difficult for users to find the best tweets around breaking news, current events or local happenings. “There’s amazing content,” he tells BuzzFeed, ”but it’s hard to discover it; you have to work as a user to go and find the best stuff, but [we] can do it easily and can package it richly.”

That all sounds great, but it has taken way too long for Twitter to accomplish something so fundamental to the user experience. The company has a terrible track record on this front that cannot be ignored. As a longtime user I’m hopeful Twitter will get it right, but I’m not confident that will happen.

Twitter’s users are slowly coming to the same conclusion as its investors: The company’s leaders don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt anymore. It’s time for Twitter to grow up and make bold changes that might alienate a few million users in the short term but add hundreds of millions more down the line.

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