Twitter makes money for first time ever, but problems remain

Twitter on Feb. 8, 2018 reported its first-ever quarterly profit, delivering a boost to shares of the social network which has been lagging for years against fast-growing rivals. (File Photo/AFP)
Updated 08 February 2018
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Twitter makes money for first time ever, but problems remain

NEW YORK: Twitter made money for the first time in its nearly 12-year history, a milestone that satisfied investors in the short term but might not resolve the company’s broader problems any time soon.
The company is still struggling to get people to sign up, despite the attention President Donald Trump’s no-holds barred tweets have drawn to the service. One problem: Anyone can read tweets without signing up. As a result, Twitter’s user base pales compared with Facebook and the Facebook-owned Instagram.
And that means fewer advertising opportunities.
Beyond that, Twitter has been dealing with policing hate speech and abusive comments, fake accounts and attempts by Russian agents to spread misinformation. Every time Twitter tries to respond to a problem, it’s either not good enough, or some other problem emerges.
“They are playing whack-a-mole with these problems,” said Michael Connor, whose Open Mic group helps investors push tech companies to address privacy, abuse and other issues. “They say they have the problem under control, but they don’t know what the problem is exactly.”
Add to that a revolving door of executives, including an influential chief operating officer leaving after Thursday’s earnings report.
Twitter said it had an average of 330 million monthly active users in the final three months of last year, unchanged from the previous quarter and below Wall Street’s estimate of 333 million. By contrast, Facebook has 2.2 billion and Instagram has more than 800 million.
Twitter hadn’t turned a profit until now because — competing with Facebook, Google and others for digital ad dollars — it didn’t attract enough advertising revenue to make up for its expenses. But it’s been cutting costs and focusing on new revenue streams, such as live video.
In some good news, the company grew revenue by 2 percent to $732 million in the final three months of 2017. That’s above the $687 million that analysts polled by FactSet were expecting. Its net income — a first — was $91 million, or 12 cents per share. Adjusted earnings were 19 cents, above analysts’ expectations of 14 cents.
After the results came out, the company’s stock jumped more than 17 percent in morning trading to $31.64, its highest level since 2015.
The quarter “was a breath of fresh air for investors that have patiently awaited for this turnaround story to manifest after years of pain,” said Daniel Ives, head of technology research at GBH Insights.
Nonetheless, Twitter has big challenges ahead. Connor said that while investors don’t want to micromanage Twitter, they at least want the company “to show that there is a level of management and governance on the senior level in place willing to address these issues.”
While Twitter is well-known, it remains difficult to use, making it difficult for the company to explain to people why they need it. Twitter also has an “image problem,” Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter said in a recent research note, “as it has been slow to act on harassment and other hostile behavior.”
The company has enacted a slew of new policies, and Pachter says this renewed focus should help. But enforcing them will be a bigger hurdle .
Connor’s group recently helped two large Twitter and Facebook shareholders file resolutions asking the companies to take more responsibility for fake news, abuse and hate speech. The companies have not formally responded, though Twitter has introduced a slew of new measures to weed out abusive account and has said that it “cares deeply” about misinformation and its harmful effect on civic discourse.
Then there’s the issue of automated accounts made to look like real people. In the days after a New York Times report on the “shadowy global marketplace” of brands and celebrities buying fake retweets and followers, prominent Twitter users collectively lost more than a million followers, suggesting that Twitter either didn’t know or didn’t act until the expose.
Fake accounts aren’t a new problem. Last June, Twitter said it has been “doubling down” on its efforts to weed out such accounts by “expanding our team and resources, and building new tools and processes.” It estimates that less than 5 percent of monthly active users are fake. But the Times referenced a report saying it could be as high as 15 percent.
One chief problem: more fake accounts keep popping up, and those behind them are getting smarter, so Twitter’s countermeasures haven’t made much of a dent.
Forrester Research analyst Erna Alfred Liousas said that while rival social networks such as Facebook deal with fake accounts, too, it may be “more elevated for Twitter” because there has been so much focus on its monthly user numbers. Anything that could jeopardize advertisers’ ability to see how many people they will reach, she said, “is going to cause concern.”
Another concern: last month Chief Operating Officer Anthony Noto announced his resignation from the company following Thursday’s earnings report. Noto, who was also finance chief until last July, has served an influential and important role at the company and had led its venture into live video. Twitter said it is not replacing Noto, and instead will split his duties between executives.
“Now (that) he’s gone, who’s running the company?” Pachter said.
Technically, that’s CEO Jack Dorsey. But Dorsey splits his time as head of payments company Square.
Twitter has “less than Jack’s undivided attention,” Pachter said, adding that nonetheless Dorsey runs the company with a “benevolent autocracy” that leaves little room for innovation.
By contrast, Pachter said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg “is not afraid if they alter his baby, his invention, to make it better,” even if in the end Zuckerberg may be the final arbiter.
Twitter declined to comment. But Dorsey said at a conference late last year that it’s “not about the amount of time I spend at one thing but how I spend the time and what we’re focused on.”


Arabic cinema wins over movie-goers

Updated 17 September 2018
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Arabic cinema wins over movie-goers

  • Oscar-nominated Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour premiered her short film set in Riyadh, ‘The Wedding Singer’s Daughter,’ at the Venice Film Festival
  • Earlier in the year Ziad Doueiri was the first Lebanese film director to be nominated for an Oscar with his film ‘The Insult’

LONDON: Arabic cinema has increasingly captured the imagination of movie-lovers around the world this year, with Arab film-makers winning award nominations and securing high-profile screenings at major film festivals.
This month the Oscar-nominated Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour premiered her short film set in Riyadh, “The Wedding Singer’s Daughter,” at the Venice Film Festival. Al-Mansour previously wrote and directed the film “Wadjda,” which was the first foreign-language Oscar entry from Saudi Arabia in 2014.
Earlier in the year Ziad Doueiri was the first Lebanese film director to be nominated for an Oscar with his film “The Insult.”
“Arab cinema’s profile has been on the rise. There are several different Arab movies being shown at Venice (film festival) this year,” said Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic and the curator of this year’s London-based Safar Film Festival, which runs on Sept. 13-18.
Daniel Gorman, the director of London’s biannual Shubbak festival, which showcases mainly contemporary Arabic culture, art and film, said he that has seen the appeal of Arabic film grow in the UK.
“There is a huge interest and appetite for creative work coming from across the Arab world and there is strong interest in the UK to hear the voices of people from across the region, in an area that is generally represented in headlines in newspapers. Film is an excellent way of doing that,” he said.
Festivals have played a vital role in boosting awareness of Arab film, he said.
“(They) are able to bring new audiences to new work as they bring this concentrated moment of activity. A festival tends to have a bit more reach in terms of media coverage and audience awareness.
“(It) brings people along to something which they might not go to as a one-off screening,” Gorman said, explaining how the Shubbak festival also works with local schools and community groups to increase access to Arabic film and art.
This year’s Safar film festival — which is in its fourth year and organized by the Arab British Center — has focused on the theme of literature and film in the Arab world.
Fahim has created a program that includes movies dating back to the 1960s that have been buried deep in their respective country’s archives, as well as new films that have not been screened in London yet.
One of the films included is the Tunisian “In the Land of Tararanni,” originally released in 1973 and based on a collection of short stories by Ali Dougai.
It was one of the more tricky recordings to track down, said Nadia El-Sebai, executive director at the Arab British Center.
“There are films in this program that audiences will have no idea how many people it took to get that film,” she said, explaining the lengthy negotiations with ministries of culture, national archives and old friends and contacts to track down the much sought-after recordings.
There were other movies they had to give up on ever finding, including those lost in Syria or Iraq, or old versions of films that have not yet been digitised by national archives, she said.
More recent festival entries include this year’s Egyptian film “Poisonous Roses,” adapted from a 1990s cult novel, as well as the European premiere of the work of an Iraqi filmmaker — “Stories of Passers Through” — which traces the stories of Iraqis exiled from their country during the Saddam Hussein regime.
The literary theme of this year’s festival was chosen as a reaction to the growing popularity of contemporary Arab cinema, with the event’s organizers wanting to delve into the history of Arabic film.
“We are delighted by the increasing access to Arabic cinema. There are more films plugged into the London film festival this year. We have other other festivals — the Shubbak festival (in London), and the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival,” said El-Sebai.
“For this year’s edition we thought we would like to take the opportunity to go a little deeper into the history and heritage of Arabic cinema, and the industry,” she said.
“Safar is taking place just before London Film Festival (LFF), which was another motivation for us to look at something a bit different as we are definitely going to see really amazing contemporary films at the London Film Festival,” she said.
The LFF — which begins on Oct. 10 — is set to feature work by Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan as well as the Saudi Arabian director Mahmoud Sabbagh’s latest dark comedy “Amra and the Second Marriage,” among other Arab productions.
Fahim was also keen to use the Safar event as a way of bringing audiences’ attention to a broader range of Arabic movies, highlighting the heritage of the film industry.
“It is reminding people that Arab cinema did not spring out today — there is a long history,” he said, adding that he wanted to question audience expectations.
“There have been a flood of amazing images from Arab cinema being displayed at festivals and most critics had no idea what they were. The more I spoke to people, the more I realized that there is a certain expectation of what Arab movies should be,” he said.
“We wanted to challenge what people expect from Arab cinema … I am tired of seeing Lawrence of Arabia a gazillion times on the big screen,” he said.
He said the selected films in the festival will hopefully challenge preconceptions. He referred to the inclusion of the 1964 Egyptian film — “The Search” — based on the writer Naguib Mahfouz’s novel. “It is a crime noir. It is essentially an existential noir and I don’t think many people will expect to see that,” he said.
Arabic cinema, however, needs to be better promoted, he said, noting a dearth of adequate film critics.
“At the big festivals it sometimes feels like Arab cinema is the bottom priority for critics,” he said.
“We need more perceptive writing. I could name you on one hand the film critics who know their stuff. That needs to change. Maybe we need to have more different voices. Film criticism is still being dominated by white male writers — although it has been developing — but that is still the norm,” he said.