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The Verge 2016 tech report card: Twitter

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It hasn’t been a stellar 12 months for Twitter. The company went public three years ago to a $25 billion valuation and the promise of growth that would launch it into the upper echelon of social networks. That vision hasn’t panned out, and 2016 furthered Twitter’s fate as a struggling Silicon Valley giant.

Twitter has watched half of its market capitalization vanish. It’s also been plagued by leadership exits and reshuffles, which have only accelerated since original co-founder Jack Dorsey took the reins as the official CEO last fall. Twitter’s vice president of product position was filled and vacated numerous times, while two of the company’s most influential executives resigned back in January.

Since then, a number of other Twitter employees and execs have either jumped ship or been laid off, draining the company’s artificial intelligence, commerce, media, and engineering teams of talent. In the last two months alone, Twitter lost both its chief operating officer and chief technology officer.

jack-dorsey

Over 2016, Twitter tried to reinvigorate its service with countless design tweaks and product launches. In February, the company rolled out its controversial algorithmic timeline in an attempt to increase user engagement. It inked a deal with the NFL to stream live football games and deployed a big product change that expanded the number of characters allowed in tweets. It also shut down Vine and integrated Periscope’s live streaming capabilities into the main Twitter app. (Twitter has since relaunched Vine as a standalone camera app with none of the social features.)

The sobering reality is that none of these changes have substantially boosted either the number of people that use Twitter every month or the amount of money the company makes on advertising. In its most recent earnings report in October, Twitter said it would lay off 9 percent of its work force, or around 350 people. Its monthly user base grew by a meager 3 percent year over year, to 317 million people. Snapchat is now used by more people on a daily basis than Twitter.

And how can we even talk about Twitter without bringing up its harassment issues? Abuse intensified in the run up to the 2016 US election, which saw President-elect Donald Trump wield Twitter in vicious, mean-spirited, and sometimes dangerous ways. His fans have followed suit. Neo-nazis and other members of the so-called “alt-right” movement now use Twitter to target media personalities. Epileptic journalist Kurt Eichenwald was attacked just this month when an anti-Semitic troll tweeted a flashing animation that induced a seizure. For its part, Twitter agreed to hand over data on the offending user.

Still, none of the company’s anti-harassment measures have gone far enough to curtail abuse or improve civility on Twitter. The company only started banning harassers, like right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, after high-profile incidents like the racist hate campaign against actress Leslie Jones.

That ultimately brings us to Twitter’s uncertain fate. A sale of the company seemed imminent just a few months ago, with Salesforce leading the pack of interested companies -- Google and Disney included. But after a closer look, everyone walked away. Now Dorsey is stuck figuring out where Twitter can go and what it should do next.

It’s a sad state of affairs. Because for how dismal 2016 seemed for Twitter as a corporation, this year was an equally effective reminder of how vital the service is to our culture. Nowhere was Trump more relevant and influential than on Twitter. His tweets — still as volatile and free-wheeling as they were before the election — now carry the weight of the highest office in America.

Above all else, Twitter remains the fastest, purest distillation of internet discourse available. Where Twitter goes in 2017 is more important than a stock price; its direction could affect how we communicate and how information is disseminated around the globe.

Verge 2016 Report Card: Twitter

F

2016 Grade

Gold Stars:

  • Banning Milo
  • You can now stream football, if you're into that
  • Adding night mode

Needs Improvement:

  • Harassment and abuse continues relatively unabated
  • User growth is flat and revenue growth is falling
  • Product has no clear direction
  • Nobody wants to buy it