In their criticism of Twitter for not growing its user numbers, critics have fundamentally misunderstood its role in our digital, mobile world.

The obsession of Wall Street and Silicon Valley with growth of its user base is misplaced. Twitter remains the most important social media network — not because of its size or growth but because of its importance and influence.

Twitter’s description as “the front page of news” is still as apt as it always was. If you’re looking for breaking news, or need commentary on big events like last week’s constitutional court case on the role of the public protector, or want to see if the EFF was thrown out of the state of the nation address, you don’t rush over to Facebook, do you?

The hashtags #PayBackDaMoney or #FeesMustFall or #ZuptasMustFall aren’t trending on Facebook, are they?

Wall Street’s concern with quarterly results means tech firms are constantly chasing (often unrealistic) targets in both user and revenue growth. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously thumbed his nose at this bizarrely self-serving rationale. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos similarly eschews this quarterly treadmill. He focuses instead on long-term objectives, as Jobs did.

Twitter doesn’t have the same luxury, and is in the midst of a crisis of investor and market confidence.

Returning cofounder and now CEO Jack Dorsey has had his hands full attempting to hang on to his top executives, trying to keep Twitter relevant against these unrealistic expectations, and juggling potentially ruinous rumours about how Twitter might change its famously linear, time-based stream of tweets to an algorithm similar to Facebook’s news feed.

Wall Street is overlooking the numbers that it should be focusing on: in the fourth quarter, Twitter had revenue of $710-million (an increase of 90% over the previous year’s quarter) and reduced its net losses to $90-millon (a decrease of 27%).

Instead, the quarter-obsessed traders are fixated on the 2m drop in active monthly users from 307 million to 305 million.

Facebook’s 1.59 billion users are quantity. Twitter’s 305 million users are the equivalent of quality.

Twitter’s role in the world is vastly different from that of Facebook, the biggest social media network and the Internet’s intranet, where people share their family pictures and cat videos and play Words With Friends.

Twitter’s biggest challenge has been to get its new users to send a tweet. But it belies the fact that its “lurkers” — as the nonparticipating watchers are known in geek-speak — are still active consumers. The metric for user engagement should rather be how many people click on those short links for news, videos and animated gifs. Twitter’s critics are looking at the wrong metric. Twitter should stop trying to be Facebook and be the best Twitter it can be.

It’s as fallacious as believing President Jacob Zuma’s sudden claim that he always intended to #PayBackTheMoney; or that government would take its responsibility seriously for the broadband expansion the country so desperately needs. After the EFF had marched out of parliament last Thursday chanting #ZuptasMustFall, Zuma mentioned the word “broadband” only twice, and then mostly to discuss how government installations would be the beneficiary of the R740-million plan to connect them.

The idea that government will roll out broadband is a fallacy that should be dismissed. Our government simply doesn’t understand or care about this new and vital form of economy enabler. Both Zuma and Thabo Mbeki have shown a flagrant disregard for its importance, as evidenced by the startling lack of progress and Zuma’s splitting of the already dysfunctional department of communications in two.

Only the private sector, which actually has skin in the game, understands how vital broadband is, and luckily isn’t bogged down by our lame-duck president and his problems.

Like Twitter, we need to see this situation as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail

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