In a statement two weeks ago, Twitter admitted that it did not expect to see any “sustained meaningful growth” in active users. The statement was frank: “Simply said, the product remains too difficult to use.”
It seems that the hawks are gathering, waiting for Twitter’s share price to fall to the point where it becomes irresistible as an acquisition target.
But Twitter might do well to look at Africa for growth – if it could adapt the product to make it more intuitive to use.
Social media has caused fundamental change in the African media landscape over past few years, with the “unbundling” and democratization of news, and Twitter has been at the heart of that change.
Now, the news of the day is what social media decides it is; radio, TV and newspapers can only catch up to what people are already discussing. Journalists are some of the heaviest users of platforms like Twitter, as they scan for story ideas.
Twitter does something else that is hugely significant in the African context – it narrows the power distance between powerful people and organisations, and the millions of anonymous “small people” who are under them, in a way that nothing else has.
Just last week, one tweet from a Kenyan to Rwandan President Paul Kagame on his third term bid unleashed a small storm on social media, that was picked up by regional and international news organisations.
However, Africa has some of the highest data costs in the world. A broadband connection in Africa requires a user in relatively cheap (by African standards) countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and Botswana to put down more than 10-to-25 percent of the average GDP per capita, while ICT is more expensive in countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mali and DR Congo, costing more than 25 percent of the average GDP per capita.
It means that Africans use platforms like Twitter in a very “economical” way, trying to stretch out their data bundles as long as possible.
For example, people are happy to join into a hashtag debate, but will not click a link to read the actual news story driving the debate, because one has no way of knowing how much data opening the link will gobble up.
Objectively, that explains what some find annoying – many Twitter users in Africa who debate the tweeted headline, instead of the linked article. But, looked at another way, it is tells of an opportunity.
Digital consultancy Nendo predicted that in 2014 and 2015, WhatsApp would take the lead, and rich participatory media such as images, text, audio and user-submitted video would become the staple throughput for the news.
WhatsApp’s similarity to SMS means that its barrier to entry is down to a smartphone or feature phone. In terms of functional literacy there is greater ease of adoption than a social network such as Twitter or Facebook.
WhatsApp suits Africa as it is “mobile only” – 70 percent of Internet connections on the continent are on mobile – and in many cases coming pre-installed on certain devices.
Twitter might do well to redesign its platform along the lines of WhatsApp, so that there is more room for coherent, intuitive flow of content entirely within Twitter – and watch their numbers shoot through the roof.
Credit: Mail&Guardian. Opinion by Christine Mungai.