Twitter makes the case it’s bigger than Facebook (really)

Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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Here’s a bit of simple math: Facebook, the world’s largest social network, counts 1.49 billion users, or roughly 20% of the world’s population. Twitter, whose stock has been punished by Wall Street for disappointing growth, reported 316 million users in the second quarter. Given these numbers, one would reasonably deduce that Facebook’s user base is close to five times larger than Twitter’s.

But that’s not how Twitter sees it. Remarks made this week by its chief financial officer, Anthony Noto, at Deutsche Bank’s technology conference reveal the San Francisco company believes it’s equal—or perhaps even bigger—than Facebook, “depending on how you measure it,” Noto noted.

I often get the question from friends [who] are like, “You know Facebook has over a billion users,” and I’m like, “Well, we have an audience, depending on how you measure it, that’s pretty comparable.” But they only have that audience, they only have the 1.4 billion they report, there’s no other number. ​We have other audience numbers that no one talks about and when you add those up it’s a big number, in fact in some scenarios you could argue that it’s bigger.

The “other numbers” that Noto is referring to are logged-out users (people visiting Twitter who don’t have accounts or don’t log in) and those who see syndicated or embedded tweets elsewhere. In July, then-CEO Dick Costolo told analysts that half a billion logged-out users come to Twitter each month, and there are even more people who see tweets distributed via partners, such as CNN and ESPN.

Fuzzy math aside, this is another unconvincing tactic to goose what has been sluggish growth. Starting with the second quarter, Twitter changed the way it counted active users, including people who sign up and access the service entirely by text message. But Twitter will have a tough time making money off both its logged-out and SMS users, since they don’t see ads like its monthly active users do. Artificially inflating user counts is ultimately meaningless if it doesn’t translate to top-line growth.