Twitter problem: It's useful, just not enough

Tough day for Twitter and Vine

In 2011, U.S. forces completed a secret raid which resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden, as an IT consultant unknowingly posted updates on Twitter about the raid that was taking place nearby.

In the hours after the raid, news of the Bin Laden attack spread like wildfire on Twitter and other social platforms. Sohaib Athar, who was stationed in Abbottabad, where Bin Laden was killed, began tweeting updates hours before President Obama confirmed Bin Laden’s death.

By the time Obama formally spoke to the nation around 11:30 p.m., people on social media around the world had pieced together some of what transpired.

Athar later acknowledged that he would forever be known as the guy who "liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it."

The Bin Laden raid is far from the only incident when chatter on Twitter has uncovered breaking news. Journalists use the social media platform every day, mining chatter for tips and hints of could-be news.

But despite Twitter’s usefulness for journalists and everyday news consumers, the company has struggled with the plague of being useful, but not profitable — yet.

The company announced Thursday it will cut 9% of its global workforce amid another quarter of slower growth in revenue — its lightest since its IPO three years ago— and tepid user growth. It's aiming to turn a profit next year, and Thursday's cost-cutting moves are designed to help get it there.

It all comes down to users. Twitter and Facebook were the two dominate players in the social media field, but as others popped up, Facebook's growth has continued to grow while Twitter has remained somewhat stagnant, according to Matthew Quint, Director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School.

“[Twitter] is fine for dipping in and seeing what the outside world is thinking, but Facebook is where I go in and get information on my friends and families, which is much more personal," he said. "Twitter doesn’t have the same emotional connection, so it's harder to build the user base.”

That's not to say that Twitter is only valuable for journalists and influencers looking for coverage.

During deadly flooding in Texas, last June, federal officials and first responders tweeted updates on river levels and rainfall. The U.S. Geological Survey, launched two fully-autonomous flood and rain-related Twitter accounts.

The feeds allowed first-responders and flood forecasters to see river gauges in real time and help with decisions ranging from when to evacuate to weekend forecasts.

But while Twitter has been a pioneer in real-time social media, the company has struggled to reign in increasing abuse on the service.

The barrage of online harassment is one reason the company has fallen flat with several buyers, according to reports. Rumors have circulated that Disney may buy the company, but previously the organization declined to pursue Twitter because of the platform's well-publicized issues with trolls who harass users.

A report from Bloomberg claims Disney bowed out over concerns with how Twitter handles harassment and abuse on its service, though rumors have resurfaced that the company is reconsidering its bid, Fortune reported. 

"Twitter stands out for its openness," Quint said. "The beauty of the open system is the massive amount of data from users, the creation of broad networks."

Twitter's openness makes it a much more impactful tool for breaking news than Facebook, but it comes with a price, Quint said.

"You can publicly go out there and state anything," he said. "So you end up in scenarios where it's a tool that can be used for "good," sharing valuable information, as well as a tool for "evil," he said.

Follow @MaryBowerman on Twitter. 


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