The Terrible (Big) Businesses of Twitter and Higher Ed

What do Twitter economics have to say about higher ed economics?

November 1, 2016

Twitter recently announced that it will be laying off 9 percent of its global workforce, or about 350 jobs. Twitter lost $103 million on revenues of $616 million during the last quarter. Advertising accounts for $545 million of that quarterly revenue.   

Even with 317 million active monthly users, Twitter can’t quite figure out how to make any money.  

How Twitter continues to be worth over $12 billion boggles my mind. 

The plan that Twitter has to become profitable - that is to show live video like NFL games while integrating tweeting (or something) - seems odd. How this capability offers much improvement upon watching a football game with one screen (or one window), while tweeting on another screen, is not at all clear.  

The very reason that any of us go to to Twitter is the other people on Twitter. The value of Twitter is information exchange amongst a limited network. Our network.  

The weight we give tweets is all about the tweeter. Twitter is a mass platform for restricted information sharing.  

Maybe the fact that I think that Twitter is important, but also an inherently terrible business, is that I work in an industry that shares these two traits.  

Could it be that a platform built around the sharing brief messages was never meant to be a $12 billion dollar business?  

Could it be that Twitter should focus on making its platform as simple and robust as possible, while reducing all the costs associated with driving incremental revenues and user growth?  

Twitter might be a very good not-very big business.  Anyone owning shares in Twitter will hate this idea - and therefore Twitter will never follow a small-is-beautiful strategy.  

I predict that the pressures to grow Twitter’s revenues will eventually kill the goodness of Twitter. The platform will get more complicated and bloated.  

Higher education is an equally bad business.  Or an equally bad big business.  

College and universities work well when we don’t try to grow by very much. It is easier to dilute than to maintain quality.  

The idea that we can somehow use technology to scale quality higher education is a fantasy.  

The quality of learning is dependent on the quality of the relationship between an educator and a learner.  And relationships don’t scale.  

The worrisome aspect of the economics of higher education is that the availability of quality learning opportunities is not growing to meet demand.  The best sort of higher education, one built on an intimate model of relationships between skilled educators and students, is increasingly only available to the most privileged. 

How can we get around the paradox that increased size leads to lower quality in higher education?

Is it true that in higher education we can have only two-of-three outcomes:  increased access, lower costs, and higher quality?

Does that idea that Twitter is a very good small(ish) business, but a terrible big business, tell us anything about the business of higher ed?

What do Twitter economics have to say about higher ed economics?


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