It's actually sort of hard to come across as financially toxic when you're a Silicon Valley firm—after all, this is the land where profit is pointless, valuations are imaginary, and WhatsApp is worth $19 billion. But once you actually do slide on your church clothes and make a go at publicly-traded respectability, investors are going to start to ask real questions. Like: do enough people really use Twitter for it to be a viable business now, or in the future? Can Twitter command enough influence to make it worthwhile to advertisers?
The answer all along has been a sheepish "maybe." The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Twitter tasked its CFO as a fixer just to boost user growth, which has been lackluster:
The Internet masses still don't get [Twitter].
To address it, the eight-year-old social broadcast network has called on its Mr. Fix-it: Ali Rowghani, Twitter's 41-year-old chief operating officer.
The company badly missed its own user-growth projections. In early 2013, Twitter executives aimed to reach 400 million monthly active users by year-end, two people familiar with the matter said. Twitter instead reported 241 million active users—just one-fifth the user base of Facebook Inc. and about half the size of WhatsApp, a younger messaging app.
Twitter's gulf between 241 and 400 million is Brobdingnagian, and investors were hoping today's financial report would bring news that the company is picking up the pace when it comes to growth. Instead, it got the opposite:
— Tim Bradshaw (@tim) April 29, 2014
While Facebook is about as ubiquitous as handjobs and oxygen, with about a billion and a quarter users across the planet, Twitter is struggling to reach 300 million. Even when it comes to opaque vanity metrics that Twitter made up like "revenue per 1,000 timeline views," Twitter is dropping off:
— @mdecambre (@mdecambre) April 29, 2014
That, plus the underwhelming 255 million users it reported today are not enough to calm investors, and that's why Twitter stock is down about 10 percent in after-hours trading, below $40 per share. It was at over $70 in December.
Maybe Twitter hasn't figured out a good enough way to pitch itself to non-nerds. Maybe it doesn't look enough like Facebook to draw in users. Maybe it looks too much like Facebook. Maybe writing 140-character messages and reading them from strangers and friends isn't something that more than several hundred million people are ever going to want to do. There's no reason to believe Twitter will ever be as inherently charming as Facebook, which seduced us with IMs and photos when we were young those things were still dreamy. If you're someone who already uses Twitter, that's fine! We never needed to be tweet-peers with the world. If you're a Twitter investor, this is about as bleak a hypothesis as you can fathom.
For now, the company will have to walk around with two black eyes instead of one: Twitter loses money, and it might never be alluring enough to change that.