Jul 24, 2020 - Technology

Twitter's torrent of woes

Illustration of a sad, sweating Twitter bird logo.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Twitter, a company well-acquainted with choppy waters, is having an especially rough moment. First, there was last week's brutal hack of high-profile accounts. Then, there was today's disappointing earnings report, along with the company's admission that it needs new sources of revenue, including subscriptions.

The big picture: Twitter has only grown in its importance to politics and culture in the U.S. even as the company's business fortunes have stagnated.

Driving the news: Twitter said Thursday that it's considering a subscription product offering to help offset losses in advertising during the pandemic.

  • CEO Jack Dorsey told analysts on the company's earnings call that they can expect to see the company experiment with some approaches this year, but he didn't specify further. 

Twitter continues to increase its user base even as advertising suffers.

  • The company added 20 million new monetizable daily active users in the second quarter, an increase of 34% year-over-year — but its ad revenue was down 23% over the same period.

Yes, but: Dorsey made it clear that he doesn't want any new subscription business to impact the company's ability to sell and serve ads. 

  • Many big media companies, from streaming companies to newspapers, have taken similar approaches recently, to help offset advertising losses. 
  • The advertising market, which tends to grow at roughly the same rate as the GDP, tends to shrink during economic downturns. 

Meanwhile, Twitter continues to deal with fallout from being hacked last week.

  • As of earlier this year, more than 1000 Twitter employees had access to the kind of administrative controls that hackers hijacked last week to take over accounts for Bill Gates, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Michael Bloomberg and others, according to a Reuters report.
  • That's despite the company's settlement with the Federal Trade Commission for a similar disaster nearly a decade ago.

In the middle of all this, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also got hit with letters from House Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican member, Rep. Jim Jordan, demanding that he join the CEOs of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook at the antitrust hearing that was planned for Monday (and is now likely to be postponed).

There's no sign Dorsey has any intention of showing up. No one has ever accused Twitter of holding a monopoly over anything. But the sideshow was a reminder of how out-of-place Twitter would be in that genuinely rich and powerful company.

Our thought bubble: Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon have all, in different ways, figured out how to reap enormous profits from the digital revolution. Twitter has not. If anything, it less resembles those big tech behemoths than the smaller, struggling media companies whose employees find its service so mesmerizing.

The bottom line: Twitter's greatest strength has been its ability to serve as an open commons, and even though it has often failed to keep it a safe and civil environment, that openness is what makes it valuable for journalists, politicians and engaged citizens. A subscription model could bolster the company's finances but limit its public value.

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