Twitter (TWTR) has earned a place in the social media pantheon for making the hashtag an everyday part of public discourse. But once upon a Wall Street time, that symbol was known as the number sign -- and you can't blame the investors who still see it that way, especially when they pick apart Twitter's digits.
It's all added up to a curious scenario: beating the Street but still feeling the heat. With its fourth quarter 2015 report on Feb. 10, TWTR stock surpassed analysts' expectations for earnings by a third -- 16 cents per share versus 12 cents -- while its $710 million in revenue tied Wall Street forecasts. But that hardly sparked a rally, as shareholders obsessed over another number: Twitter's declining user base.
"The recent earnings report shows why it's likely to stay second and potentially fall behind," says Andy Kapyrin, director of research at RegentAtlantic Capital in Morristown, New Jersey. "Twitter had eclipsed the user growth of its competitors up until the last 12 months and has begun to lag behind severely."
The day after the report, Twitter stock tumbled more than 4 percent, falling below $14 before rebounding to more than $18 per share, But that's hardly a comfort, considering that TWTR traded at $51 last April.
To be sure, the 305 million monthly average users Twitter reported marked a slip of less than 1 percent from the previous quarter's 307 million, and beats the 304 million reported in the second quarter of 2015. Its active user base remains healthy at 320 million, but try telling that to investors who envy the gargantuan stats posted by Instagram, for example.
Acquired by Facebook (FB) in 2012 for $1 billion, the photo-sharing app service hit 400 million users in late September -- news it gleefully reported on Twitter, no less. That watershed also marks double the users Instagram posted in March 2014.
Observers also point out that among high-tech's heavy hitters, Twitter is at a disadvantage because it lacks anything in the pipeline for the digerati to get excited about. That's a problem shared by Apple (APPL), which expects to post a first-ever dip in iPhone sales this year.
"Twitter's biggest enemy is its simplicity," Kapyrin says. "It's a social network with only one feature: sound bite comments."
And on the curated social media front -- where apps now battle for supremacy in covering big events -- Twitter lags far behind Instagram. In a review of Tuesday's Grammy Awards coverage, the website TechCrunch praises Instagram's video feeds that took users backstage with Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. Twitter mavens, meanwhile, had to settle for still photos and shared reactions from the online peanut gallery.
"Immersion," TechCrunch notes, "has never been Twitter's strong suit."
Dovi Frances, general partner of SGVC, an early-stage technology investor with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, says that Twitter is "experiencing an identity crisis."
A big part of resolving that is offering something -- anything -- that will attract teenagers. "They currently account for 25 percent of all consumers and will account for 40 percent by 2020, and guess what? They really don't use Twitter nearly as much as the previous generation," Frances says.
He says that Twitter simply hasn't matured and diversified the way Facebook and Alphabet (GOOG) have. Teenage users, Frances says, "don't want to be limited to Twitter's 140 characters, nor do they find Twitter's one-sided engagement to be of interest. They view the platform as a self-promotion tool and not a genuine self-expression medium."
Meanwhile, Twitter's just-announced stab at innovation seems as potentially excessive as the 140 mark can be restrictive. It will allowing tweets of up to 10,000 characters, or something on the order of 2,000 words. On the one hand, it could attract new users who wouldn't have to live and die by crammed sound bites. Yet it also threatens to clog Twitter feeds with an avalanche of long-winded screeds.
Still, there is good news: Even if Twitter is twisting in an Internet wind, some observers see definite signs of #hope.
"Twitter continues to be the universal real-time information network: No other company, brand or offering comes close to these capabilities," says Michael Downing, founder & CEO of Tout, a next-generation video platform and based in San Francisco. "The stock is shockingly undervalued and if management and product leadership revert to more of a 'network' position as opposed to a 'destination' position in the market, this will be a massive success story."
Twitter also has Periscope to bet on. The free app allows users to broadcast live video worldwide, "and may prove to be the secret weapon that adds money-making capability to the Twitter family," says Todd Antonelli, managing director of the Berkeley Research Group in Chicago and a senior advisor to high-tech Silicon Valley business leaders.
Aside from having the potential to allow for hyper-short ads -- and thus juicy ad revenue -- Periscope also comes embedded in the Twitter platform, which sits on the iPhone. Apple may be dropping in sales, but remains the two-ton gorilla in the smartphone jungle.
"Apple recently reported that they may now have the largest social media messaging service in the world, reaching 63 quadrillion messages per year at peak rates," Antonelli says. (Note:A quadrillion is 1 followed by 15 zeroes.)
And still other investment pundits choose to take a wait-and-see attitude, noting that Twitter won't even celebrate its 10th birthday until March 21.
"I'm not confident I can determine which companies will be the long-term winners in this space," says Robert R. Johnson, president and CEO of The American College of Financial Services in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. "I'm bullish on social media as a communication platform, but simply have no confidence in which social media platforms have staying power and how the firms can monetize their business models."
He adds: "I think there are parallels between today's social media companies and the Internet search market. Google has prevailed -- but remember Netscape?"
More From US News & World Report