The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The death of Twitter as we know it

The Twitter logo is shown on an LCD screen in front of a displayed stock graph in central Bosnian town of Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in this April 29 photo illustration. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
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Twitter's having a moment right now — and not in a good way. The social media company is catching a lot of flak, for both changing its network to appeal to a wider audience and for not doing it quickly enough.

But this sort of Catch-22 is a story we've seen play out before, and will probably see again and again. It's the story of a company that's growing up.

I've already reported on why it's not totally fair for Wall Street to expect Twitter to be like Facebook from a business standpoint. But, from a user's standpoint, I have to admit there are parallels in how the companies have grown and changed. And that's also telling me that it's time to let Twitter become whatever it is going to become.

Twitter isn’t Facebook, but Wall Street expects it to be. That’s a problem.

I get the wariness. I have this very vivid memory of the first time I almost rage-quit Facebook. I was studying abroad in Japan, and therefore not paying that much attention to Facebook. (This was also before paying attention to Facebook was part of my job.) I was invited to an event to support diabetes research back in the States — something I couldn't go to — and so I declined the invitation. Within seconds, another student in my program yelled out across the room, "Hayley, why do you hate diabetics?"

And that's how I found out about the Facebook News Feed.

I was mortified. I was furious. I felt betrayed, even, in the way only college students can. I felt that way again when Facebook opened up to non-students. (Remember that?) I'd trusted them with a lot of information, and thought I understood the boundaries of what they were doing. Why were they changing all the rules? This kicked off a long period of time when every change to Facebook's news feed was treated with suspicion and panic.

But I got over it. Because the answer, quite simply, was that they are a business. And making money — particularly off the thoughts, snark, emotions and dreams of millions of your users — is a tricky proposition. It's hard to execute changes without breaking the hearts of a few of your earliest fans.

When you join a service in its early days, you feel some ownership of it. That's particularly true of social networks, because you share so much with them. You don't think of the network itself as your friend, per se, but it does feel pretty personal.

So that's why things like the algorithmic timeline and talk of extending beyond 140 characters doesn't always sit well, even when Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey reassures everyone that Twitter's only getting more Twitter-y. (“Twitter is live,” he said on the firm's earnings call. “Live commentary, live conversations, and live connections.”) Because, we think, how could that be possible? We are Twitter; we stayed with it through its "fail whale" period when it wasn't reliable. We bothered to learn and care about the etiquette around the manual retweet. We've embraced Twitter's quirks — yes, even the weird .@ thing Dorsey specifically called out as "broken" on Thursday — and are happy with the network as it is because we are its niche.

Twitter may have a harder — certainly different — road to maturity than Facebook did, since its network doesn't quite entrench you the way Facebook's does. Another complication is that Twitter's having this moment while it is a public company. All the turmoil has led some analysts to question whether that was a good idea at all. Rapid Ratings chief executive officer James Gellert, in a note after Twitter's earnings, was quick to point out, "Remaining private would have saved it from public scrutiny, allowing them to focus on internal issues and provide a reliable product to users."

Other analysts are less worried. After all, in just about any other business, 48 percent revenue growth year-over-year sounds pretty good. Dorsey's got big plans for the network, building on its strength as a live platform, with an ambition to make it the "first screen" on which we get our information, rather than playing a second screen/second-fiddle to the television.

Old users may get run over in that ambition, but we must also realize that products change. They get bought by "the man." They become "the man." They, like, totally sell out to advertisers because, incredibly, they have to make money.

This is just Twitter's moment to go through the same things that we've seen before. And we'll see it again.

Like, really. Snapchat, take note.