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Sale or No Sale, Twitter Could Be Changing

The Twitter logo appears on a phone post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Oct. 27, 2016.
The Twitter logo appears on a phone post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Oct. 27, 2016.

Sale or no sale, Twitter users are bound to see changes as the beleaguered communications service tries to broaden its appeal to more people and advertisers.

A new owner could clean up Twitter and curb some of the nastiness that's become synonymous with it. Or perhaps a new owner would just show more ads. Or let it languish while it moves the best of what Twitter now has into its existing products and services.

All of this is speculation, of course, and there might not even be a new owner. Twitter's stock plunged after rumored bidders were, well, rumored to be no longer interested, but the company's third-quarter adjusted earnings of 13 cents per share on revenue of $616 million beat analysts' expectations. The company also said Thursday that it would lay off about 350 people, or 9 percent of its global workforce, as part of a restructuring.

A new parent could inject fresh life into a 10-year-old company that's never turned a profit and remains confounding to many people. But even if Twitter stays independent, drastic changes to its service might just be what it needs to be competitive with Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

How might it change? Facebook's absorption of Instagram and WhatsApp in recent years could offer clues. Both services have kept separate identities, to an extent, and have experienced user growth. But slowly, they are acquiring Facebook-like features. For example, Instagram no longer presents feeds chronologically; they are now sorted much like Facebook's news feed, using some secret formula known only to Facebook.

Though the change has turned off some early Instagram users, its user base has soared, to 500 million as of June. That's nearly 200 million more than Twitter, even though Instagram is three years younger.

More ads

Twitter has never turned a profit, and whoever buys it will need to fix this. That means boosting the user base, so advertisers would follow. That also could mean better targeting, so that ad rates go up.

Search giant Google is the leader in online ads. Imagine what its might and muscle could do to Twitter's ad business. YouTube hardly had any ads when Google bought it; now, ads are so prevalent that YouTube is able to charge $10 a month for an ad-free version called Red.

FILE - An Instagram login page is pictured on a laptop screen in Pasadena, Calif., Aug. 14, 2013.
FILE - An Instagram login page is pictured on a laptop screen in Pasadena, Calif., Aug. 14, 2013.

Instagram has also inserted ads into users' feeds of perfectly composed snapshots featuring everything from cappuccino foam to seafoam. It started out slowly with a carefully curated ad here and there, but today you're not likely to avoid ads when opening the app.

Salesforce, a company that provides internet services to businesses, has also been mentioned as a contender to buy Twitter, leading to a lot of head-scratching among users. Would Twitter become a business product, used for customer service and marketing instead of revolutions, neo-Nazi memes and political outbursts?

"Salesforce is a very technology-driven company,'' eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson said. "It seems they would want [Twitter] mostly for the data that Twitter has.''

Remember once-popular MySpace? News Corp., the stodgy media conglomerate, bought it for $580 million in 2005. But users started falling off as MySpace failed to keep up with Facebook's speedy innovations. After layoffs and failed relaunches, News Corp. sold the fallen giant for $35 million in 2011, and that was just about the end of it. It's not unthinkable that Twitter could suffer the same fate under a big media company.

What about Disney?

Walt Disney's reputation as a squeaky-clean, family-friendly company is perhaps the clearest antithesis to Twitter's soul, as many users see it.

"My chief fear is that Disney will wield Twitter as one large PR machine to prop up their image and squash dissent,'' said Timothy Hayes, an Ohio State University student who says he fell in love with Twitter in high school. "The Mouse is not above silencing [its] opponents.''

Some users, on the other hand, might welcome some thorough housecleaning that goes beyond the steps Twitter is currently taking to curb abuse and nasty behavior on its service.

One Twitter user, New York attorney Danny Mann, says that while Google has improved YouTube "in ways that were unimaginable at the time,'' he finds many of his fellow YouTube users difficult to deal with. In this sense, it's possible that even with Google's weight behind Twitter, the abusive and nasty nature of many Twitter comments would remain as is.