I was watching the series premiere of HBO’s True Detective when I heard the popping sounds, each in quick succession — POP POP POP. Living in Washington, DC, you occasionally hear what sounds like gunshots but could just as easily be fireworks or a car backfiring. But there was something chilling about these noises, especially as they continued on unabated for a solid 20 seconds. If they were gunshots, then someone was engaging in a prolonged battle, and the thought of such violence carried out within earshot of my apartment was disturbing.
I of course didn’t want to go outside to investigate, and it could be hours before any local news station reported on the incident, so I turned to the one platform most likely to help me: Twitter. Opening up the app, I went to its search feature and typed in the words “heard” and “gunshots.” I immediately found three tweets, each from a user listing DC as his location, reporting they had also heard what sounded like gunshots. One of them included the handle of a popular local blogger in his tweet; that blogger then dutifully retweeted it to his thousands of followers. Within minutes, I was engaged in conversations with multiple users, asking them if they’d seen cop cars or any indication that a gun battle had just taken place. Eventually, someone who had seen the retweet from the local blogger piped in: the popping noises had been fireworks. She’d seen them set off right below her apartment window.
There was nothing novel about my experience. For years now, Twitter has been used as a real-time conversation platform that has allowed its users to get ahead of professional news organizations in reporting events as they occurred. But the incident is worth noting in the context of Twitter’s struggles to communicate its value to investors. Ever since the company’s IPO, CEO Dick Costolo has attempted to distance Twitter from the metrics used to judge other social networks like Facebook and Instagram. Instead of focusing entirely on monthly logged-in users, Costolo also wanted recognition for “the hundreds of millions of people who come to Twitter and don’t log in.” He was referring to the millions of instances in which a tweet ricocheted beyond Twitter.com into live television updates and news articles.
His attempts at reframing Twitter’s value were ultimately unsuccessful; this month Costolo announced he was stepping down as CEO, and co-founder Jack Dorsey has taken the reins as interim CEO until the board can find a permanent replacement. Meanwhile many tech pundits have already penned eulogies for what they consider a stalled-out platform, a has-been that will plummet back to earth as shinier networks like Instagram and Snapchat pass it by.
But before you write Twitter off as yet another Myspace, consider this: my experience chasing down the source of the popping noises earlier this week could not have been accomplished on any other platform outside Twitter. Sure, some of my neighbors likely took to Facebook to report what they had heard, but those posts were confined to their personal network and were unlikely to yield any additional information. Facebook search has always been a joke, and even if you could search beyond your network, the various privacy settings employed on Facebook would provide a further hurdle for finding information in real time. Given their dependence on images and video, Snapchat and Instagram would have been useless to me, and though Google+ sports some robust search features, it doesn’t have the critical mass necessary to ensure that such a small, localized incident would be mentioned.
That leaves Twitter as the only platform for true real-time conversation. Yes, its growth rate for logged-in users has slowed, but it has created a significant network effect that has guaranteed its continued relevance even in a crowded marketplace of shiny new social networks. In just about any live event, whether it’s a local shooting, mass protests in Ferguson, a live sports game, or a television program, Twitter serves as an invaluable resource, generating a level of commentary that is unrivaled in its richness and diversity.
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Though investors have so far been unable to recognize this value, other major social platforms are certainly envious of Twitter’s positioning. Just recently, Instagram announced it was rolling out more robust search features with the hope that it could enable real-time discovery of events as they unfold. “People are hungry for what’s happening right now in the world,” Instagram’s CEO told reporters. “All of us in social media and regular media, we’re all competing for the same thing, which is this gap between something happening in the world and you knowing about it.”
That gap is quickly shrinking, and at the forefront of that trend is Twitter. With the new ability to publish images directly into the stream as well as the launch of Periscope, Twitter’s live-streaming app, no other platform can compete in surfacing information at such a breakneck speed. That investors don’t recognize this strength is merely a testament to the closed-mindedness of Wall Street. Judging a platform solely on its monthly logged-in user count is ludicrous when tweets are being displayed within the content of every major mainstream news and entertainment company in existence. Twitter has achieved near-universal ubiquity, the kind that will make it invaluable for years to come.
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VCs and investors have been pouring millions of dollars into new media ventures recently, ranging from Ezra Klein’s Vox to Glenn Greenwald’s First Look to Jonah Peritti’s BuzzFeed. Why the sudden interest? Typically, a VC invests in a company with the hope for a large return many times the initial investment once the company goes public or is acquired. Do any of these new news organizations really have that short-term potential, and is the investment creating the right kind of incentive structure to practice quality journalism? Gawker’s Nick Denton doesn’t think so:
Not every media company has chased venture capital funding, however. Gawker Media, for example, has bootstrapped its entire operation since its founding in 2003. It is, however, an exception.
“We never raised money because we fund growth from cashflow,” said Nick Denton, CEO of Gawker Media by email. “And the journalistic pursuit of the truth is not compatible with outside investment. It’s impossible because of venture funds’ sensitivity to criticism, short time horizons and attachment to conventional wisdom,” he said.