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Twitter we salute you...just don't get too popular or try to make money

09 Apr 2013  |  Richard Marks 
Richard_Marks

Twitter is now emerging as the primary curator of - and gateway into - the internet, and will potentially supplant Facebook argues Richard Marks, Director of Research The Media. But what are the implications? Monetisation is one obvious challenge...and hanging out online with your gran another.

Don't panic! Keep reading! This column is that rarity - a media piece about Twitter that will not reference Social TV - see this recent article by Nigel Walley for more on that. There will be no speculation about cause and effect, engagement and second screen today.

Fascinating though it is, I do wonder whether the recent focus on Social TV specifically - with even Twitter itself joining in with the acquisition of Blue Fin Labs - is obscuring a wider issue; the growing importance of Twitter itself.

Last week I was speaking to a friend who isn't on Twitter - she 'doesn't need to tell people what she had for breakfast'. I was struck by how much the medium has changed for me personally from that perception of frivolity - inherent in the name - to being the one social medium I would miss the most.

Twitter has evolved into being effectively a new jumping on point for the Internet, helping move us from an Internet of search to an Internet of curation. That is Facebook's aim too, a world of 'frictionless sharing', but Twitter has stolen the march on them as the mobile social medium.

So, the 213 people or news organisations I follow are effectively my self-selected 'curation hive mind', offering information of interest and then acting as a 'Greek Chorus' to debate its importance.

Undoubtedly my Greek Chorus has a skew - towards media, authors and 80s Doctor Who cast members - but I am happy that I can rely on my Twitter feed to tell me what is out there. It's not about what Lady Gaga had for breakfast but about Thatcher dying: major breaking news, debate and, for me as a 'one man band', a vital work tool.

Twitter's importance was apparent at Mediatel's Youth, Media & Technology event last week. Now firstly a caveat - this was a panel of just five 'young people', the very opposite of 'Big Data', so is best used to stimulate thought and explore theories as opposed to giving a definitive view.

Dominic Mills has already related on Newsline how negative the panel was about Facebook: they felt 'judged' on the site and were reacting badly to the growing role of advertising within the platform.

Furthermore, this was before Monday's announcement about Facebook potentially charging to contact celebs outside your social network.

This disillusionment was predicted two years ago by Professor Jeffrey Cole of the USC's 'Centre For The Digital Future', when he argued that Facebook would hit problems when it achieved ubiquity and became so popular that people's parents were on it.

Would you go to a nightclub if you had a chance of bumping into your Granny at the bar? I am reminded of the great South Park episode about Facebook, where the kids' parents are berating them: "Stan - poke your Grandma!" - a 30 second clip that speaks volumes.

So the first dilemma - or catch 22 - of social media: your social media of choice needs to be popular enough so that all your friends are on it, but not so big that everyone is on it - it's a state of grace, a sweet spot, that by definition cannot endure long.

Don't get me wrong, I believe Facebook is here to stay, despite being late into mobile, because everyone is on it and will most likely stay on it. The MediaTel Youth panel was using it less, but they were still using it and Facebook will no doubt make oodles of money.

Like the most successful rock bands, it can go on to 'play stadiums' for the next twenty years a la Coldplay, but it may never again have that cachet it had on the way up. (And if you can excuse the metaphor, does this therefore mean the Rolling Stones are 'TV'; still top dog after 50 years?)

So, as a result of these issues with Facebook, some of the panel now preferred Twitter as a social medium, more so than a year ago at the same event, because it is seen as realtime (particularly for news) and seemingly freer, easier and less 'judgmental' - although try telling that to Paris Brown, our first police Youth Commissioner.

The second dilemma lies in monetisation. As Dominic Mills also observed, this group were avowedly anti-advertising: "What surprised me was the lengths they would go, and sophisticated strategies they adopted, to avoid exposure to advertising."

The key scene in Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network comes when Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker argues that it is too early for Facebook to take advertising as they may alienate potential new subscribers and diminish the cool factor, so wait till you have critical mass and then cash in: "You don't even know what the thing is yet. How big it can get, how far it can go. This is no time to take your chips down. A million dollars isn't cool, you know what's cool? A billion dollars."

Fictionalised, obviously, but we can see this coming true with Facebook now and the cynic in me wonders whether our Mediatel youngsters will in time experience exactly the same disillusionment with Twitter when it cracks the monetisation challenge. Think of the online storm last Autumn when Instagram tried to change its T&C's to claim they owned your photos. Outrageous - or an obvious route to monetising the asset?

Twitter is starting to monetise: eMarketer predicts that it will earn $1.33bn of advertising globally by 2015. Whilst that is baby steps in comparison to established media and Google, what will the Mediatel Youth panel members say in 2015, I wonder? Will they still love Twitter or will they be singing the praises of 'Babblesphere' or some other gleam in a venture capitalist's eye?

Perhaps - just so long as their parents aren't on it and the service isn't so crass as to try to make money.

@RichardMlive

Richard Marks is the Director of Research The Media. Find out more here.

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