Twitter is struggling because it failed to innovate; Weibo is soaring because it did

Twitter’s latest earnings report shows yet again that the company’s growth has stagnated and that it missed revenue estimates.

Twitter’s latest earnings report shows yet again that the company’s growth has stagnated and that it missed revenue estimates. The result was a sharp decline in its share price, a fall of almost 20 percent.

By contrast, China’s Twitter, Sina Weibo, has been doing phenomenally well. Its monthly active user figure is up 34 percent and net income has grown 122 percent.

What secret formula has China’s Twitter found that’s put it so far ahead of struggling Twitter?

To put Weibo’s growth in perspective, Twitter gained approximately 200 million users over five years. Weibo did 140 million in two.

Also, we must point out that weibo generally refers to ‘micro-blog’ in China. When we talk about Weibo today, we’re specifically talking about Sina Weibo. There have been other weibos in China, most notably Tencent Weibo.

Twitter is struggling because it failed to innovate; Weibo is soaring because it did

Image: Reuters

At the time it launched in early 2009, Weibo (Sina Weibo) shot to popularity because of the number of celebrities that came onboard. By late 2011, Weibo was already being seen as a better platform than Twitter and analysts were wondering why Twitter wasn’t at least aping Weibo’s features.

While Twitter began as a microblogging platform, Weibo started out as a media platform. The site was designed around this idea and the company innovated accordingly. With features like 'Hall of Celebrity', 'Micro Topics' and 'Categorised Trends', Weibo made it much easier to discover something you liked and become a part of it.

Weibo wasn’t about socialising and following friends and family, it was about you and your interests. It did take after Twitter in that you were limited to 140 character posts and you had concepts like verified accounts, but that’s as far as it went.

Calling Weibo a Twitter clone is like comparing SMS and WhatsApp; the latter pair are fundamentally about text-based messaging, but their scope varies.

(Also read: Here are 12 things that you didn't know you could do with WhatsApp)

Weibo’s Hall of Celebrity, for example, is a page that lists and categorises the various verified accounts and celebrities on the network. One can simply go to that page, browse through the categories and follow people based on one’s preferences.

Micro Topics is another feature that sets Weibo apart. They’re similar to Facebook’s Pages, but are handled very differently. Weibo will take a topic and then add a unique tag that links to a page created for that topic. It ends up serving as a hub for that topic. Twitter is trying to implement that with Moments, which aggregates tweets, headlines, photos and highlight around a popular topic, but it hasn't really taken off.

Trending Topics are also better handled in Weibo, with topics categorised and ranked in a separate hub for you to peruse at your leisure.

You also get features like chat (actual chat, not private messages), gamification of posts, a greater wealth of options for customisation and more.

Looking at it another way, Weibo took the very core of Twitter – messaging, tags, verified accounts, etc. – and intelligently built upon every individual feature.

Weibo is far from perfect. A great deal of its success can be attributed to the company’s relationship with China’s communist government and the lack of any competition in its home country. It’s also heavily censored and it’s no secret that the government controls everything on the platform.

Regardless, Weibo is still doing a far better job at building and managing a community than Twitter.

If you look at Twitter, what has it really done differently in the 10 years since its inception? There have been changes for sure, but it has remained functionally the same. You tweet and retweet, follow accounts that you’re interested in and that’s about it.

(Also read: Twitter still hasn't learnt to tread the fine line between censorship and freedom of speech)

Twitter’s management has always maintained that Twitter is a platform for free speech, but if that’s all it’s offering, it’s no wonder that Twitter is struggling today. If I were to oversimplify it, I’d go so far as to say that Twitter is only about having your say.

Twitter never built on its strengths. Many people say that they use Twitter for news. Would it really kill Twitter’s management to just build something like news.twitter.com as a hub for news? It’s missed opportunities like these that are killing Twitter.

Add to this fact Twitter’s hostility towards developers and its unwillingness to clamp down on the rising toxicity in its community, is it any wonder that Twitter is struggling?

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