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Analysis: Why doesn’t anyone want to buy Twitter?

In this  2013 file photo, the Twitter logo appears on an updated phone post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (Richard Drew / Associated Press)
In this 2013 file photo, the Twitter logo appears on an updated phone post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (Richard Drew / Associated Press)
By Hayley Tsukayama Washington Post

I, like, many Twitter users, watched with interest as the social network’s shares fell off a cliff last week when Salesforce – believed to be Twitter’s most enthusiastic suitor in its latest round of bids – said the social site was “not the right fit” for the firm.

It was an anticlimactic end to a breathless news cycle that had reported that Twitter, which is on the market, was entertaining bids from Google, Disney and Salesforce and sent the company’s stock soaring as investors thought they’d see a big payday from a sale.

But the fizzle at the end raised a big question in my mind: Why doesn’t anyone want to buy Twitter? After all, the social network has over 300 million active users, has been a key platform in the 2016 election and is the go-to online megaphone for essentially anyone who has to say anything online.

The somewhat boring financial answer is that Twitter simply doesn’t make enough money off of its devoted users. Nor does it know how to keep growing its network to offset that fact. The past several Twitter earnings reports have shown that revenue growth and user growth have been lower than expected when the company first went public. So while Twitter can claim that it is unique, companies may be right to question how much investment it will take to turn that uniqueness into actual value.

As a user, though, I believe there’s a more obvious reason why Twitter isn’t a great candidate for acquisition: Without its independence, it just wouldn’t be Twitter.

That attitude can be hobbling for the company. Arguably, Twitter’s biggest issue has been its ongoing struggle with harassment, abuse and just general bad behavior on its network. But Twitter’s own devoted users make it difficult for the company to resolve that issue easily.

There tend to be two camps of thought on this issue: There are those who say Twitter needs to police its content more thoroughly to keep damaging posts off the network. And there are those who say any attempts at cleaning up the network is tantamount to censorship – a problem for a company that still touts its role in the Arab Spring and other revolutions. For Twitter, moving too far in either direction means alienating a lot of users.

The fact that Twitter’s users even get to debate over the soul of the network underscores the platform’s devotion to free expression – and makes one wonder about how that value would jell with another company.

Disney, for example, was named as a potential buyer. It would have been interesting to see how a company that encourages debate as much as Twitter does would have worked with a company that doesn’t even let its workers have unkempt facial hair. (Bloomberg reported that Twitter’s image was indeed a factor in Disney’s decision to back off its bid.)

Who’s a good fit for Twitter, then? Who else would users accept as overseers of their Twitter accounts? Maybe not strait-laced Salesforce, which prides professionalism over rants. Maybe not even Google, which, while perhaps a better cultural fit, would almost certainly try to leverage Twitter’s data and maybe alienate users. (The same could be true of any company looking to make money off Twitter’s data.)

So while the image issues alone may not be what keeps Twitter from finding a buyer, adding in the weak financials make it a harder pill to swallow.

There is a bright spot here for the social network, however. With this super hyped bidding round under its belt, Twitter management has shown shareholders clamoring for an acquisition that it has seriously considered a sale. Still, that puts even greater pressure on chief executive Jack Dorsey – whose 2015 return to the company he founded drew comparisons to Steve Jobs’s return to Apple – to take Twitter into its successful next stage. To date, Dorsey hasn’t managed to turn his genius for product into something that can assure investors there’s a strong future ahead.

It doesn’t help Twitter that its chief social networking rival, Facebook, seems to be moving from strength to more strength. While Twitter investors are always asking for more information on where the firm is going each quarter, Facebook’s investors have been given a 10-year plan. Yet, it’s not quite fair to compare the two: Facebook’s business model centers on keeping people on its site for as long as possible so they’ll see and engage with ads there. Twitter is all about quickly getting as much information from as many places as possible and letting the stream flow into users’ feeds. That’s great for knowledge but not so good for engagement.

To fix that issue, Twitter has a pretty clear road map. But it requires the firm to play in some uncertain areas. Twitter’s experiment with live events has been fascinating to watch. New tools such as Periscope have expanded to try to dominate the market for live video – which Facebook is also eyeing – and last week Twitter said that users would be able to live stream from streaming software or cameras, as well as smartphones.

Twitter has also used its live feature to host centralized live events augmented with commentary. The social network struck a deal with the NFL for Thursday Night Football, hoping to bring more eyeballs to the network – and its ads – during games. It’s hard to judge how well the experiment is doing in a year when NFL ratings overall are down, but the feature itself has been generally well-received by those who have tried it. Users can see the live the game while surfing the stream – seeing comments from other viewers as well as ads in the feed.

Now that Twitter has thrown a bone to those clamoring for a sale, it may be able to focus more closely on its central problem: turning enthusiasm for live events and for its general product into consistent growth and profit. But it will have to act quickly. The hype after Dorsey’s return raised the stakes that much higher, and failing to effect a turnaround can have drastic consequences.

Just ask Marissa Mayer.

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