Twitter was the place to be in 2016. Is that enough to save it?

The social network didn't see a rush of new users, even though it was impossible to ignore.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
7 min read

Twitter saw plenty of ups and downs in 2016.

James Martin/CNET

Did you join Twitter this year? How about read or write a lot of 140-character tweets?

Thanks to the extraordinary US presidential campaign and the unprecedented use of Twitter by the candidates, media critics and the company itself dubbed the contest the "Twitter election." On Election Day, more than 40 million tweets were sent about the race, topping the 31 million posts on Election Day four years ago.

All that attention, however, hasn't been enough for Twitter to overcome its awkward identity crisis.

Top brass at the social network, which turned 10 in March, seemed unable to decide which direction it should take, spurring an exodus of top executives despite the return last year of much-admired co-founder Jack Dorsey as CEO. Twitter also had a hard time balancing its self-proclaimed role as a platform for expression against the need to control hate speech, reportedly prompting big name suitors like Apple, Google, Disney and Salesforce to pass after Dorsey put the company up for sale.

A much-promoted foray into live-streaming events, like the presidential debates and NFL games, generated some interest, but traditional broadcasters don't have anything to worry about yet.

Then there's the user problem -- as in Twitter didn't really add a whole lot of tweeters in 2016. Its active user growth flatlined at 317 million people (in comparison, rival social network Facebook now has nearly 1.8 billion members, and Snapchat now boasts 150 million daily users.)

This leaves many wondering what Twitter is.

"Is Twitter a media company? A technology company? A data company? Or all of the above?" asked Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst with e-Marketer. "It's not a company that is easily defined or bucketed."

Sure, Twitter still punches above its weight in terms of influence. President-elect Donald Trump used Twitter to capture the world's attention with epic tweetstorms during the campaign and continues to use it to discuss his plans and call out critics. Pop stars Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, who have the most followers on the service, with 94 million and 90 million respectively, continued blasting brief messages to their fans.

It's obvious Twitter is still hashing out its future, whatever that may be.


One of Twitter's biggest challenges has been trying to figure out how to be the world's digital town square -- at least one where people want to hang out.

On the one hand, it encourages people to express themselves and fancies itself as the "free speech wing of the free speech party." It wants to be a rowdy forum for ideas.

But it also has rules of use, including a prohibition on hateful conduct.

The problem is that Twitter has been slow to crack down when members ratchet up the hate and gang up on others, including making fun of race or appearance.

Take the case of Saturday Night Live regular Leslie Jones, who starred in this year's reboot of "Ghostbusters." Personal attacks by a mob led by Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor at right-leaning Breitbart News, led the African-American actress to give up her Twitter account. The attacks on Jones, who called them a "personal hell," focused on her looks and race.

Jones returned to Twitter after Dorsey reached out to her. Twitter also banned Yiannopoulos.

Dorsey's intervention underscored Twitter's cavalier attitude toward cyberbullying, says Kelley Heider, vice president of social media at SSPR, a San Francisco-based public relations agency.

"The fact that it was [Jones], a public figure, and suddenly Twitter thinks it's a problem because she says, 'I'm deleting my account and leaving because of hate speech,' is unacceptable," Heider said. "Cyberbullying happens on a daily basis. It's happening right now. So I think until recently, it hasn't been of a real major concern."

In November, Twitter rolled out tools that let users "mute" tweets based on words, phrases and emoji. This differs from the earlier mute function, which only let people block the tweets of specific users.

When Twitter launched the new tools, it said in a blog post that "we commit to rapidly improving Twitter based on everything we observe and learn." Still, the post also mentions that the company doesn't expect "to suddenly remove abusive conduct from Twitter."

The company also went on the offensive last month, suspending the accounts of several high-profile users who espouse white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideas. Twitter representatives didn't respond to a request for comment about the account suspensions.

On December 29, Dorsey took to the Twitterverse asking users for suggestions, complete with the hashtag #Twitter2017.

Dorsey's tweet drew responses, many demanding more protection from abuse -- Twitter, however, reached a tipping point with trolls in 2016. Dorsey said Twitter has been working on its policies and controls, but also asked for more specific protections.

He later tweeted on Dec. 30 that four major themes stood out from users: abuse, editing, topics and interests, and conversations.

Live streaming

Twitter tried to give the masses a new reason to visit its platform with live streaming,

The social network live-streamed the raging presidential debates and struck a series of deals to stream sports, including Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. It also launched a nightly roundup show called "The Rally."

The big score: a deal to live stream 10 Thursday night NFL games. Twitter even launched a live stream app to capitalize on the NFL's September debut, a battle between AFC East rivals the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets.

The debut was widely praised, even if it didn't appear too different from other live streaming experiences offered by Facebook and Yahoo. There were complaints of Twitter's stream lagging behind network broadcasts, sometimes resulting in TV viewers tweeting what happened before the live stream caught up. (Here's a tip: Watch the game either on Twitter or on TV.)

The hype over Twitter's Thursday night games has faded, even though viewership has increased. Nearly 3.5 million people watched at least part of a November 17 thriller between the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints, better than the 3.1 million that each of the previous three games attracted, according to Twitter.

The NFL games prove Dorsey is doubling down on video. In an internal memo in October, he challenged his staff to make Twitter "the first place people check to see what's happening," calling the service the "people's news network."

The Trump effect

One place where Twitter's identity shined: serving as a microphone for people with fully formed egos.

Nowhere was that more evident than Trump's masterful use of the social network to get his message -- accurate or not -- out to his supporters and detractors.

Trump trashed his rivals in his tweets and issued unapologetic, racist and sexist comments, sometimes at 3 a.m. By the time we woke up, Trump's exclamation point-laden outbursts were all anyone was talking about.

"I don't think you would see a Donald Trump candidacy without social media," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said at the Republican National Convention in July.

During the campaign, Trump's followers grew to 16 million from the nearly 10 million when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in July. He follows only 41 people. And, of course, he pulled off what's being called the biggest upset in modern American political history, one that social media didn't see coming.

"He revolutionized the use of the medium to his advantage," said Brian Sobel, a political analyst. "We're talking about a guy who's 70 years old, nimble enough to embrace a medium that caters to millennials and not to post-baby boomers. Seriously, that's pretty incredible."

Dorsey himself said in early December he has mixed feelings about Trump's prowess on Twitter. "The complicated part...is just what does this mean to have a direct line to how he's thinking in real-time and to see that. I'm not sure."

Yet, when Trump met with executives from more than a dozen tech companies in the US, Dorsey surprisingly wasn't invited to the party -- despite how much Trump uses Twitter. Trump's transition team told Reuters the omission was because Twitter as a company was too small.

Still, since his victory, Trump has basically ignored traditional media, relying on Twitter and other forms of social media to communicate directly with America. That could translate into more people joining Twitter, especially international users interested in reading for themselves what the about-to-be commander in chief has to say.

Trump's use of Twitter is also ratcheting up the volume on the democracy conversation going on in the US -- a conversation that's encouraging normally quiet Twitter users to become more vocal, including users like the US Office of Government Ethics.

After the president-elect tweeted he was working on a plan to cope with conflicts of interest around his business, the federal ethics watchdog agency shared its thoughts by mimicking Trump's tweeting style and using a "snarky tone, with exclamation points," NPR noted.

Among its tweets: "Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest . Good call!" And "OGE is delighted that you've decided to divest your businesses. Right decision!"

That conversation didn't "go down in the DM" -- Twitter's nonpublic, direct messaging feature. And that's good for Twitter and its efforts to grab more users.

The US OGE had just 1,494 followers when it tweeted out its encouragement to Trump. Now the agency has more than 12,000 followers.

We got more of the Trump Twitter effect by the end of 2016 as Trump tweeted shots at outgoing President Barack Obama after Obama said he would've beaten him if he could've ran for a third term.

Then Trump praised Russian leader Vladmir Putin after Putin decided not to retaliate over U.S. sanctions in response to cyberhacking attempts to effect the US presidential election.

He then wished his haters, um, enemies, a happy 2017...

First published December 3. Update, December 31 at 12 p.m. PT: Adds further comments from Jack Dorsey and Donald Trump.