04/29/2014 09:25 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

Twitter Tries Out A New Definition For Twitter


When Twitter filed for its initial public stock offering last year, it clumsily described itself as a "global platform for public self-expression and conversation in real time." This tagline was used by approximately no one.

As Twitter faces investor pressure to show its can attract more mainstream members, the social network has come up with a new definition of what Twitter does.

"We think of Twitter as a companion experience to what's happening in your world," Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo said on the company's earnings call Tuesday. Costolo repeated the line several times during the question and answer session with investors and analysts, while also asserting that Twitter, which has about a fifth as many active users as Facebook, is "incredibly mainstream."

Twitter no doubt hopes the new "companion experience" nomenclature will prove a friendlier, more memorable mantra that convinces holdouts to get Twitter handles of their own. The catchphrase is a kind of catchall that attempts to cover the many possible uses for Twitter, ranging from sourcing stories and getting news to catching celebrity gossip and talking about TV shows.

The company does need to convince people that it has something to offer. (User growth, already sluggish, has slowed .) In a sense, the fact that Twitter is already very familiar to mainstream audiences points to a deeper problem confronting Costolo and co: The challenge for Twitter isn't that it's unknown. The challenge is that people -- many, many people -- know Twitter and know they don't want to join.

Reflecting concerns over Twitter's success attracting users, the company's stock price plummeted in after-hours trading Tuesday, even as Twitter reported strong gains in advertising revenue.

Twitter's new slogan may try to address the people problem by shifting Twitter's emphasis from speaking to listening. The tagline suggests that Twitter doesn't have to be a place where you self-express and share information. It can just be that screen you flick through while watching the Grammys. The line tries to reassure you it's totally okay to be a passive consumer, rather than conversing creator.

This is a point Twitter has been trying to make for several years. The biggest misconception about Twitter, Costolo said in a 2012 interview, is that "you have to tweet to Twitter." For the past four years, Costolo and his predecessor have presided over a series of redesigns that have shrunken, squished and de-prioritized the tweet box, as if to tell silent Twitterers it's fine to stay mute. The tweet box once sat on top of people's timelines, making it the first thing they saw when they logged on. Now, it's been reduced to a fraction of the size and slid to the left side of the screen. As it stands, 44 percent of existing Twitter accounts have never sent a tweet, according to a report released earlier this month by the analytics firm Twopcharts.

Convincing Twitter holdouts to reconsider the site is likely to require more drastic changes to Twitter's offerings, which risk alienating the old-timers. Costolo has already introduced a more visual, image-heavy look, one that he said helped increase Twitter's base of users in the most recent quarter. He also noted that Twitter had simplified its signup process on mobile phones, and was better at suggesting Twitter accounts for new members to follow.

Coming next: A move toward private conversations. Costolo told investors Twitter has plans to "[make] it possible for people to more fluidly move between the public conversation and private conversation." There's a chance the embrace of private messaging will woo the never-adopters. But it's a certitude that this will be a change in focus for the social media site. The first word in the first image Twitter included in its initial stock offering filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission? "Public."