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Twitter Tests New Products And Experiments Like 'Super Follows'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Silicon Valley, things change pretty quickly. But not at Twitter. The social network has long been the exception to the rule innovate or die. Now Twitter is racing to catch up with a whole bunch of new products and experiments, things like subscriptions, groups and something called super follows. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond is here to tell us more.

Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So super follows - what is this?

BOND: Well, this is an idea that a Twitter user could set a price, say, $1 or $5 a month and let others subscribe to basically a premium version of their Twitter feed. And, you know, you might be wondering, why would anyone pay to read tweets?

KELLY: Yeah (laughter).

BOND: The idea is that people could sell - right (laughter). But the idea is people could sell bonus content, right? So an exclusive newsletter or membership in a group. Maybe a musician could give their super followers bonus tracks. A filmmaker could give an early sneak peek of a movie trailer. And maybe those things would be worth some money, or at least that's what Twitter is hoping. We don't know a lot of the details or when this will start to roll out, other than, Twitter says, sometime this year.

KELLY: It's interesting because, as we noted, Twitter is not known for innovation. This seems like a departure for them.

BOND: Yeah, I mean, one of the last big changes Twitter made was doubling the length of a tweet. That was back in 2017.

KELLY: Yeah.

BOND: And now it's making a lot of changes. It's more than just super follows. Twitter bought a newsletter company. It's experimenting with audio chatrooms and disappearing posts. It plans to introduce groups around particular interests or topics, like a sports team. Many of these things are efforts to bring in more users and more money. You know, they could boost its core advertising business and also bring in new revenue sources like this kind of subscription income.

KELLY: Disappearing posts - I don't know if that sounds terrifying or great. Why now? Why is Twitter thinking about doing all this now?

BOND: Well, let's actually go back to a year ago when Twitter was targeted by a hedge fund that tried to oust CEO Jack Dorsey. And this hedge fund said, you know, he wasn't focused enough on Twitter, on making it better by really - which, ultimately, they mean, you know, making more money for shareholders. So last week, in this presentation to Wall Street analysts and investors unveiling a lot of these new ideas, Dorsey made this kind of surprising acknowledgment about Twitter's weaknesses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK DORSEY: Why don't we start with why folks don't believe in us? It comes down to three critiques - we're slow, we're not innovative, and we're not trusted.

BOND: I mean, and look - you know, Twitter is much smaller than Facebook. It hasn't grown as quickly as Snapchat and TikTok. But now we see this company - you know, Dorsey's really pushing it to put a big emphasis on these new products and experiments. He has these two ambitious goals he wants to reach by the end of 2023. One is to get a lot more users - to get to 315 million daily users from, you know, under 200 million right now - and to more than double annual sales. And to reach both of these goals, it really comes down to getting people to use Twitter more and use it for more things.

KELLY: Do we know what the feedback to these changes has been so far from Twitter users?

BOND: Well, you know, we focus on super follows - you know, I think there have been a lot of jokes about this. You know, exactly why would you pay for tweets? I mean, this is a website where the recurring punch line you see on Twitter all the time - this website is free.

KELLY: Is free, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BOND: Right. And look - I don't think most people are going to charge for their tweets. This is an idea that's very much targeted at people with big followings, high profiles, like musicians, like influencers, who might release exclusive content for their super followers. You know, that's the kind of content people are going to pay for. That's not what most people are using Twitter for. But more broadly, you know, it's not just investors that complain Twitter has been slow to improve. Users do, too. But when users talk about it, they're worried about keeping people safe from harassment and abuse, curbing bogus claims. That's what users think Twitter should be focusing on.

KELLY: That is NPR tech correspondent and Twitter user Shannon Bond.

Thanks, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.