Google flies high, but Twitter is in big trouble. Here's why it should call Africa for help

Africa's mobile data traffic is forecast to see a twenty-fold increase from 2013 to 2019, around twice the global growth rate.

TWO big announcements came out of Silicon Valley this week. In a surprise blogpost made public Monday, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced a radical restructuring of the tech company, which would see it rebranded as Alphabet - a new holding company whose largest wholly owned subsidiary will be Google.

Page and Brin will head Alphabet, allowing room for more of  the futuristic stuff the company wants to do, such as drones, self-driving cars, and incubator projects such as Google X. 

These will be managed separately from a “slimmed down” Google, that will focus more on the core search engine business as well as Chrome, YouTube and Maps, headed by Sundar Pichai. After the announcement, Google’s share price soared 5% in after hours trading.

Meanwhile, Twitter co-founder and interim CEO Jack Dorsey edged up his stake in the social media giant by buying up $875,000 worth of shares Monday, in a show of support as it navigates a leadership transition and struggles to grow its user base.

In June, then-CEO Dick Costolo stepped down as chief executive as user growth stagnates, the company’s stock is at a record low and seems to be now floundering without a permanent CEO at the helm.

Hawks are gathering

In a statement two weeks ago, the company admitted that it did not expect to see any “sustained meaningful growth” in active users. The statement was frank: “Simply said, the product remains too difficult to use.”

It seems that the hawks are gathering, waiting for Twitter’s share price to fall to the point where it becomes irresistible as an acquisition target.

But Twitter might do well to look at Africa for growth - if it could adapt the product to make it more intuitive to use.

Africa has been the fastest growing region for mobile connections over the last five years, and is forecast to see the highest growth of any region in terms of the number of smartphone connections over the next six years. 

There will be 525 million smartphone connections in the region by 2020, accounting for more than half of the total connection base at that date.

The growing adoption of smartphones along with other data-capable devices such as tablets and dongles is in turn driving an explosion in data traffic. The region’s mobile data traffic is forecast to see a twenty- fold increase from 2013 to 2019, around twice the global growth rate.

Google sees the future

Google is working to capture a part of that explosion in developing countries, through Project Loon, a balloon-based Internet network. Last week, Sri Lanka became the first country in the world to deploy Loon, which beams high-speed internet from balloons floating 20 kilometres above Earth to every town and village in Sri Lanka.

READ: The mobile phone comes first Africa, before electricity, water, toilets or even food

Secondly, social media has caused fundamental change in the African media landscape over past few years, with the “unbundling” and democratisation of news, and Twitter has been at the heart of that change.

The origin of news - what the media decides the news of the day is - used to be determined at 9am and 3pm editorial meetings in stuffy conference rooms, presided over by red-eyed, breathless editors chasing the big “scoop”.

Now, the news of the day is what social media decides it is; radio, television and newspapers can only catch up to what people are already discussing. Journalists are some of the heaviest users of platforms like Twitter, as they scan for story ideas.

The Age of the “Second Screen” is upon us, says a landmark report on trends shaping the social media landscape in Kenya, published by digital consultancy Nendo. The report focuses on Kenya, but its insights may be applicable in the wider African audience, particularly those with moderate to high Internet penetration such as South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana.

“We will no longer watch television without a second screen- a phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop - nearby,” the report predicts. “It will become a part of the experience. Kenyans already frequently congregate around television programs - news, sports or entertainment but now they will also do so on social networks such as Twitter.”

It’s already happening, particularly during the 9 o’clock news, that generates some of Kenyan television’s highest ratings. The opportunity for social television is best seen in investigative pieces by journalists who build up anticipation through social networks such as Twitter.

Cat videos and funny memes

And quite separately from sharing cat videos and funny memes, Twitter does something else that is hugely significant in the African context - it narrows the power distance between powerful people and organisations, and the millions of anonymous “small people” who are under them, in a way that nothing else has.

Just this week, one tweet from a Kenyan to Rwandan President Paul Kagame on his third term bid unleashed a small storm on social media, that was picked up by regional and international news organisations.

READ: ‘Most-followed Africans on Twitter: Presidents don’t rule here, its musicians, comedians, models and sports stars

However, Africa has some of the highest data costs in the world. A broadband connection in Africa requires a user in relatively cheap (by African standards) countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and Botswana to put down more than 10-25% of the average GDP per capita, while ICT is more expensive in countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mali and DR Congo, costing more than 25% of the average GDP per capita.

It means that Africans use platforms like Twitter in a very “economical” way, trying to stretch out their data bundles as long as possible. 

For example, people are happy to join into a hashtag debate, but will not click a link to read the actual news story driving the debate, because one has no way of knowing how much data opening the link will gobble up. Objectively, that explains what some find annoying - many Twitter users in Africa who debate the tweeted headline, instead instead of the linked article. But, looked at another way, it is tells of an opportunity.

Basically worthless

Indeed, all over the world, Twitter traffic remains very much within Twitter - one unscientific survey by a writer at The Atlantic estimated that just 1% of people who see a viral post clicked on the link and read the story on the Atlantic website.

 It means that Twitter is basically worthless for the limited purpose of driving traffic to a website, though it does drive other intangible things (fame, popularity, notoriety) very well.

Nendo predicted that in 2014 and 2015, WhatsApp would take the lead, and rich participatory media such as images, text, audio and user-submitted video to become the staple throughput for the news.

WhatsApp’s similarity to SMS means that its barrier to entry is down to a smartphone or feature phone. In terms of functional literacy there is greater ease of adoption than a social network such as Twitter or Facebook.

In addition WhatsApp suits Africa as it is “mobile only” - 70% of Internet connections on the continent are on mobile - and in many cases coming pre-installed on certain devices such as on Nokia’s Asha 501 from late 2013. 

Twitter might do well to redesign its platform along the lines of WhatsApp, so that there is more room for coherent, intuitive flow of content entirely within Twitter - and watch their numbers shoot through the roof.


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