How Twitter can soothe Wall St, save Vine, and quiet power users in one step
"And don't say that I have changed / 'Cause man, of course I have" - Of Montreal, "Cato as a Pun"
There's a cottage industry of Twitter truthers out there -- some of whom skulk with dark-eyed hatred in the deepest recesses of trolldom, while others sit bouncing atop the mastheads of national magazines -- who believe CEO Dick Costolo is slowly turning their beloved social network into something it's not; something gross and inauthentic, akin to its bigger, wealthier, and more mainstream rival, Facebook. The product changes they bemoan -- half-murmured proposals to use insidious algorithms and shameful ad units -- are thought by true believers to reflect some eternal battle between "Twitter the Community," which resists change and relishes in the site's anarchic simplicity, and "Twitter the Evil For-Profit Public Company," which doesn't care about subtweets or canoes or the rest of Twitter's idiosyncratic culture. Instead, Evil Company Twitter will do whatever's necessary to grab as many new users and as much cash as possible, even if it means alienating the platform's earliest devotees.
It's an alluring narrative, particularly for old-timer Internet mavens who have watched one adored platform after another succumb to the all-devouring flames of public markets. But it's also a narrative that, when you stop to think about it, is utter nonsense. In fact, whether the issue is harassment, advertising, or algorithms, Twitter is a company that displays a more cautious and thoughtful commitment to users -- even when it comes at the expense of short-term profits -- than perhaps any other multibillion dollar tech firm of its generation.
So why, then, does it feel like Costolo himself has bought into this storyline that says everything good for Twitter's bottom line is by definition bad for its core audience? It's as if the CEO is held hostage by these power users every time he attempts to attract mainstream audiences, in a case of corporate Stockholm Syndrome that manifests itself whenever Twitter experiments with a feature that isn't specifically targeted toward this core -- which, considering most power users simply want Twitter to stay the same, is every feature. From creating custom feeds for new users to courting millennials with Vine, Twitter will often move so slowly and meticulously that these experiments take far too long to reach their potential, if they ever do at all.
This week, for example, Twitter began toying with autoplay videos. If adopted quickly and aggressively, video views for advertisers, television partners, and Vine stars would all increase, thus making shareholders very happy. But because Costolo has come to believe that a false dichotomy exists between what his user base wants and what Wall Street wants, Twitter is moving at a snail's pace to implement autoplay -- it's not even functional on Vines yet -- in order to make sure users aren't alienated by the move. I guess that's sweet of Costolo, but with consumers hungrier than ever for mobile video, and everyone from giant tech firms like Facebook to upstarts like Meerkat taking huge leaps into this space, Twitter can't afford to move slowly simply because it's afraid to piss off users.
Besides, hasn't Twitter been patient for long enough? The company's monetization efforts came on slow as a glacier, so as not to offend the virgin senses of users with ugly ads for second-rate products. It has largely resisted the siren call of algorithmic tinkering used by more profitable social networks often with the effect of insulting intelligence and manipulating emotions. And in its policing of harassment, Twitter has struck an imperfect yet admirably responsive balance between free speech and safety.
But while those acts of kindness and patience directed toward users were consistent with Twitter's larger brand identity, today the company risks following a similar path as Digg, which had become so beholden to its power users that it was no longer capable of innovating or appealing to mainstream users. And while I doubt Twitter is headed toward a flameout as fast and dramatic as Digg's, if Twitter's family dysfunction continues it will likely lead to some major blown opportunities -- if it hasn't already.
***This week's decision to experiment with autoplay videos is one that, while undoubtedly controversial, could also be astoundingly lucrative. Thanks to consumers' growing acceptance of mobile-first video tools like Snapchat, mobile video consumption among smartphone users has skyrocketed from just over ten percent in 2009 to 45 percent last year. But as I witnessed the panicked reaction to the autoplay announcement from diehard users and a handful of journalists, and recalled Costolo's striking tendency to deftly and judiciously navigate these users' concerns, I felt for the first time a degree of sympathy for Twitter's supposedly soulless shareholders.
It must be all they can do to suppress a gag reflex at some of the predictably fatalistic responses that come flying whenever Twitter announces any sort of change, big or small, from the mouths of so-called "power users." These are the same righteous women and men who cried that Twitter was over when it introduced promoted tweets; that it was over when it changed profile layouts to look more like Facebook's; and that it was over over over when the site ever so gently and on the rarest of occasions let an algorithm instead of a human decide what tweet a user saw next.
And now, thanks to its latest Zuckerbergian overture, Twitter is over again. And if I were Costolo, I'd be on the brink of telling these users if they're really so turned off by a company trying to make money, maybe they should go join Ello.
***So what makes videos that play automatically but silently as you scroll up and down the page the epitome of evil?
On one hand, I understand the collective hum of disapproval that seeped out of Media Twitter's underbelly upon hearing the news. One study suggested that Facebook's autoplay videos eat up 60 percent more data on some cellular networks. When rumors of the experiment first arrived last December, Pando's Nathaniel Mott wrote that autoplay would be downright "hostile" to users and contrary to Twitter's lean nature. (Never mind that Twitter, like every other service that offers this feature, will certainly offer the option to turn it off).
But even the staunchest anti-autoplay advocates need not worry because this is Twitter, remember? Considering its history in these matters and judging by the cautious, modest tone taken by Twitter's spokesperson in discussing autoplay, Costolo and company will likely move as slowly as possible in implementing this feature, testing and tinkering until it's so perfect that not a single user can complain about it in good faith. I expect autoplay to be activated for every user and every video by when, 2025?
Personally I don't mind autoplay videos on Facebook and Instagram, but that's not why this concerns me. You see, Twitter can afford to drag its feet on, say, implementing Facebook-style algorithm feeds, even though they would undoubtedly boost user growth and put a smile on Wall Street's coke-smeared grin. That's because algorithmic curation is not and never has been central to Twitter's philosophy or business model.
But when it comes to mobile video, Twitter has no time to waste walking on eggshells to avoid the wrath of users who hate change. Because with mobile video at an inflection point on its way toward exploding in popularity, and with reports of dissatisfaction from some of Twitter's most important video constituents -- from television execs to teen Vine stars -- the company cannot afford to move slow here, or to hedge on any strategies that could help solidify its position in this space. Otherwise it may cede the spoils of the mobile video boom to Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Meerkat, and anybody else who tries to operate in this sector.
Twitter already whiffed big on the last huge movement in mobile visual storytelling, losing Instagram to Facebook. Is history doomed to repeat itself?
***Autoplay may sound like a rather trivial feature for Twitter to hang its future on, but it's crucial to achieving success in the mobile video space.
To begin with, there's some pretty simple yet striking math to consider here: In June 2014, Facebook had 1 billion video views a day. By January 2015, following a worldwide autoplay rollout completed in the previous quarter, that number had skyrocketed to 3 billion a day. The fact that Facebook is now in a position to rival YouTube's 4 billion daily views is astounding, and something that would have been unheard of even a year earlier.
With less than a fourth of Facebook's users, Twitter won't rival YouTube for video views anytime soon. But implementing autoplay will nevertheless boost its current daily video view count, rendering its video ad products that much more attractive to brands. Sure, users may not be thrilled to see more ads on Twitter, video or otherwise. But Twitter's approach toward monetization, wherein advertisers only pay for direct engagement while secondhand retweets and other positive viral outcomes come free of charge, incentivizes brands to make ads that don't suck.
Second, autoplay fits perfectly into Twitter's television ambitions which, despite years of promise, haven't quite lived up to the hype according to some industry insiders.
Twitter has long embraced its role as "the second screen" -- the melee of voices that accompany viewers while watching the Super Bowl or the Oscars. But since May 2013 when Twitter launched Amplify -- a product that allows broadcasters like ESPN to post videos directly within tweets -- Twitter has vied to become the "first screen" as well, hosting exclusive television-quality video content, like instant replays from sporting events.
For a while it looked like Twitter might pull off its first screen coup. But sources told Ad Age last summer that while Amplify was a great product when used in conjunction with live sporting events and awards shows, TV executives struggled to build effective campaigns around clips from scripted shows. As a result, a number of Amplify partnerships have reportedly been put on hold or discontinued altogether. That's not entirely surprising; Twitter lends itself best to programming that's designed to be consumed live. But based on the example set by Facebook, autoplay would boost views across all video types for Twitter, live or scripted, therefore increasing the current value proposition of Amplify, which one media buyer described to Ad Age as "tricky."
"It is a nice chunk of money for something advertisers are not convinced has value," the source told the outlet.
And finally, remember when Vine seemed like the coolest thing in the world? For millions of young millennials, it still is. But according to a Gigaom report from Pando alum Carmel DeAmicis, Twitter has done little to support -- or in some cases even acknowledge -- its top Vine performers. That poses a very serious risk that these stars will bolt for a platform like YouTube, which is willing to invest millions of dollars to retain talent. (Though YouTube's relationship with top talent has been through its own ups and downs.)
In truth, Twitter couldn't really justify offering financial support to Vine creators because the company still hadn't bothered to monetize the six-second video platform. But now that Twitter has purchased Niche, a startup that connects brands with emerging Vine celebrities, the video site will finally start creating revenue, giving Twitter an incentive to promote these performers on its platform. (Though again, Vines are not yet part of the autoplay test, which is a little baffling, considering that they are easily Twitter's most entertaining and viral-ready pieces of video content. Again, Twitter has to move faster here.)
Between Amplify, Vine, Periscope – the Meerkat live streaming video competitor it recently acquired – and a user base that like the rest of the world has finally warmed to mobile video, Twitter is uniquely positioned to grab a healthy piece of the seemingly inevitable windfall that the space will bring forth in the coming years.
But Costolo and company can't move too slowly or else Twitter will not only miss the boat on mobile video; it will also enable its most demanding users to continue holding the company and platform to impossible standards no matter what innovations it pursues. If you've ever dated somebody with Borderline Personality Disorder, you'll know what I'm talking about: You can do everything for this person, and you can behave and speak in a way that never casts even a shred of doubt on your level of commitment. But when you do inevitably slip up, the fallout becomes that much worse as your partner's pathological fear of abandonment – which you've no doubt coddled and protected against for years – breaches the surface and crushes you.
Break the cycle, Twitter; even if you have to piss off a few users to do it. I'm on the verge of ripping my hair out as I admit this, but it's time for Dick Costolo to follow the motto of Mark Zuckerberg: "Move fast and break things" – even if that includes the spirits of a few stubborn power users.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]