By the standards of tech journalists, I'm not all that heavy a Twitter user, but in the universe of regular people I qualify as an addict. From time to time, my non-techie friends will ask me why they should be on Twitter. My answer is always the same: You shouldn't. If your livelihood doesn't require caring about breaking news, Twitter is probably a waste of your time. Most people only ever use a handful of apps, and the utility Twitter delivers the average person isn't enough to keep it from falling off the home screen. Save yourself the download.

But that advice has always come with a caveat: There are times--during the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the presidential debates, Hurricane Sandy,* the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing--when Twitter temporarily goes from inscrutable to indispensable. The challenge, for Twitter, has been keeping users around long enough to discover how great that second-screen experience can be.

The new feature released last week, Moments, just may be the solution to that challenge. Consisting of collections of tweets, photos and videos that together tell a story, Moments is Twitter at its best, no assembly required. Where the classic Twitter timeline can feel baffling to a neophyte, Moments is self-explanatory. Where the infinite stream is overwhelming, Moments feels manageable. Scroll all the way through a story and you're rewarded with the message "You're caught up." It's a strangely satisfying feeling after years of feeling like you must be missing all the good stuff.

The question now is whether it has arrived too late. We're encouraged to believe that the return of co-founder Jack Dorsey as CEO marks a new dawn for Twitter. Influential tech analyst Ben Thompson thinks Dorsey's homecoming will galvanize current employees while the depressed share price will help attract outside talent. "[I]n a fair fight, I like Twitter's chances," he writes.

There's nothing fair about this fight, though, and not just because Dorsey is only allocating 50 percent of his time and brainpower to Twitter, saving the balance for Square, his other startup. Writing at The Information, Sam Lessin shows why decline, once it sets in, is almost impossible to reverse for web-based tech companies. Startups that go from nothing to mass scale overnight rely on a "human-capital flywheel" of talented people who join up for the chance to work with other talented people; once that process starts running backward, it has its own inertia. (The layoffs announced Tuesday are in part an attempt to combat that inertia.) 

The biggest new digital services are usually created amid some sort of platform transition or mass shift in consumer behavior. Facebook blew up when it did because MySpace had taught the masses about social media; Snapchat was first to understand that photos are a native form of mobile messaging; and so on. This was true for Twitter as well: By figuring out how to combine social networking and text-messaging, it stole a march on Facebook in mobile.

Moments, clever as it is, doesn't arrive in response to any sort of platform migration or behavioral shift. Some observers have pointed out that it's basically the same product as Snapchat's Stories. That's not a knock on Twitter--when your competitor comes up with something that works, it's smart to learn from it--but it does suggest there's no gaping vacuum to be filled here.

Thompson notes that Twitter is "launching an integrated marketing campaign" around Moments. It's as worthy a use of Twitter's capital as any, but the idea that TV commercials are going to alter Twitter's trajectory is wishful thinking. Without some bigger societal force giving "Twitter quitters" a reason to revisit the service, Moments has a slim chance of being a game-changer.

 

*This originally read Hurricane Katrina, which was written in error. 

Published on: Oct 13, 2015