What if Twitter goes rogue?

May 25, 2011

Since the dawn of Twitter, the big question about the micro-blogging service has always been “but how will they make money?”.

To date, Twitter have taken a now-very-typical approach to this: rely on funding to grow a massive, engaged and dynamic community without worrying about the money, and then once the community is in place, apply the business model.

There’s three recent-ish developments that many people think point to the fact that things might be changing soon:

  • First, Twitter made some changes to their API which essentially takes the developer focus away from Twitter clients and instead suggests a focus on data,
  • Second, they just announced the acquisition of Tweetdeck for an astonishing $40m,
  • Third, they have just in the last few days started sending emails by default on all replies and re-tweets

These things might look slightly disparate in nature, but the overall shift is one in which Twitter has more control over the stream of content emanating from the service. Tweetdeck is an interesting acquisition for Twitter in this sense – yes, it may  be an extremely powerful and widely-liked client but it also crucially allows users to filter what they see.

When you consider that the most likely business model for Twitter is to start populating the Twitter stream with ads, suddenly all these developments start to appear a bit more strategically connected. Once Twitter has control over the stream and has moved control away from client developers, ads are going to be much harder to filter. You can bet too that those incoming emails will be ad-populated before long too.

Clearly, any online business needs to make money or at least be self-sustaining, and having burned through a big pile of VC money Twitter is going to be looking to claw back wherever they can. It’s lovely that Twitter is free and not filled with ads, but it is also unrealistic to think that this might go on forever.

Working on the assumption that things are going to have to change, where does that leave the user? Talk of heading off to Identi.ca or other microblogging services is unrealistic; Twitter has (and knows it has!) a huge critical mass. The only other offering on the horizon (albeit what looks like a distant horizon) is Diaspora – a lovely model (you own your own stuff) but again totally lacking in real-world usefulness right now.

We’ve all invested hugely in Twitter. It’d be very hard for many of us to imagine life without it – but we’ve all bought into a service which is a commercial service, and one which is subject to the whims of profitability.

So – back to the title of the post. What if Twitter goes rogue – and by “rogue” I mean “starts doing something that you personally find unacceptable” (so for the sake or argument, imagine a scenario which makes you wince, be it ads in-stream / membership fee / company bought by the Chinese / content moderation at source / etc). What then?

Personally, I think I’d pay a membership fee in order to use the service. I’d also likely pay in order to not have ads in my stream. What about you?

28 thoughts on “What if Twitter goes rogue?

  1. I’d be prepared to pay also… but worth bearing in mind, given you ‘critical mass’ comment, is that paying for something like Twitter only works if everyone else I want to engage with/follow/whatever on Twitter is prepared to do likewise.

    • @Andy – true, which is I guess why the “remove ads by paying” model is probably better than the “pay for access” model..?

  2. As I mainly use it for work, I’d be asking whether work would pay…and I’m not sure they would. Would I personally pay to use something that I largely use for work communication…?

  3. Same as Andy – I’d be prepared to pay, but worried that paying and/or ads would lose people or at least change the atmosphere. Even if the charges are reasonable or the ads are not too intrusive, people react badly to stuff being “taken away” from them.

    There’s probably a way Twitter could broach the subject that would mitigate for that – make people feel more included / valued – but I can’t see that happening.

  4. I guess as with so many of these things the answer is “it depends” 🙂 I pay a fiver a month for Spotify – which was really just to get rid of the ads – and I don’t regret that for a second so if that sort of option at that sort of price was available for Twitter I doubt I’d bat an eyelid.

    However like Mr Powell says if my community decides that isn’t a decision they can live with and suddenly all moved elsewhere then I’d have to think again. Twitter has never really been about the technology – it is the people and if they move on and just leave behind a celeb obsessed crowd then what is the point..

    • @Matt – totally agree, and ditto I pay for no ads in Spotify and would be more than happy to do the same for Twitter. The question is “move on” to what if this wasn’t the model…?

  5. I suspect I would pay at first. But I imagine the introduction of an overt commercial face to Twitter will firstly, significantly alter the quality of the community and secondly, provide a huge boost of momentum to the upcoming technologies like Identi.ca and Diaspora. It would only be a matter of time before the centre of gravity for consuming ambient intimacy would move away from Twitter and where upon I would also relocate.

    Personally I feel this theme relates to the broader and more fundamental issue of how identity is represented on the Web (I wrote more about it here http://www.tombh.co.uk/what-if-facebook-was-as-open-as-linux). Ultimately I predict that we will eventually settle on a truly distributed and federated mechanism for both asserting and expressing identity, much in the same way we recognise other standards such as HTTP, HTML.

  6. As i’ve just said on twitter – I wrote a blog post touching on this a while back:-

    http://bit.ly/jP7HZV

    I waffle a bit, but my point was that personally, I *mostly* only use it to keep track of my friends/ colleagues in the web industry, so my “critical mass” is only really a couple of hundred people i’d have to persuade to move to something else and it would provide the benefits that twitter provides for me now.

  7. I would pay personally to keep it ad-free PROVIDING it didn’t start to suck in other ways. (Eg I wouldn’t pay for facebook because it sucks overall, not just because the ads suck. I cannot define what makes it suck – possibly just its ubiquity and the ever-youtubier free-for-all on non-friend pages.)

    I know that it’s crucial to my place of work, and in the same way we pay for hootsuite or whatever tool we’re currently using, we’d pay a decent retainer for better analytics and back-end things. Whether we’d pay for ads is something else; the twitter audience would react badly to that I think.

    • @Han – thanks, yeah, I concur with the suckiness thing too and agree it’s kind of intangible.. Although – Facebook is a different beast where you’re subject to much more STUFF and it’s hard to see how Twitter could ever get this bad. Unless, I suppose, they forced *all* access through their website and chunked loads of crap around the edges, Facebook-style..

  8. I think your analysis of Twitter wanting to take a firmer control of the distribution channels is pretty spot on. I’m enormously disappointed to see the acquisition of Tweetdeck, as it’s my favourite client by a long way, precisely because of the control it gives me in the presentation layer, and I don’t think the acquisition bodes well for that in the future.

    But my patterns of use of Twitter have changed, too. I wrote more about this but it was turning into a ramble which I should post elsewhere: I guess my Twitter network(s) have changed, particularly since the student protests in November, from a relatively small, mainly tech-/edu-focused community, to a rather more diverse one with which I interact in different ways.

    Would I pay for Twitter? Well, I suppose it depends how things develop. But right now, my answer is “no”, because these recent changes feel like steps towards a more controlled, commercial model, and in the end that’s not something I want to give financial support to. So I’d probably end up with a combination of (i) and (iii) in your poll: maintaining some curtailed presence on Twitter as long as it continued to be useful/valuable while putting more effort into finding and using (and encouraging others to use) more open, and ideally decentralised, alternatives (which I might be prepared to support financially).

    • @Pete – yeah, good perspective, and I suspect there are loads of people for whom “ever-increasing-commercialness” would be a turnoff.

      In that world, the best possible solution would be a decentralised “thing”, I suppose, where the cost is distributed as well as the trust. Here’s hoping Diaspora pulls something out of the bag soon!

  9. I think I could live with the ads IF they are clearly ads (so i’d ignore them with ad blindness) but it would quickly annoy me if I thought the twitter user was real but was actually an ad – this is different from a marketeer ‘engaging’.

    Like a few others have stated, I think we’ll play along until it becomes unbearable and see where my ‘network’ goes. I live quite happily without facebook and don’t miss twitter when im busy so it is not the be all and end all.

    Would I pay? unlikely. Spotify is forcing me to pay (5hours a month/5 plays only) the result of which I havent used it since. I could live with the ads but I now feel they are forcing me to pay which rubs me the wrong way. I pay for many good things (council tax… subscriptions galore.. ) so am not totally opposed but think the freeness is part of the draw and I doubt i’d like to be in a members only club.

  10. Where there are text/image ads, there are usually ad blockers. I stopped looking at ads on the web years ago and more recently on my phone, too. Those of us that know how, will get around the ads. As others have said, it’s what it does to your community overall that is the real uncertainty. It’s not so big a deal for a distinct tech community of users to decide to shift to identi.ca is it? It bridges Twitter nicely, too, if it matters to you.

  11. Hey Joss, good to hear from you. I agree with you IF people are using the web, but now that Twitter increasingly own the mobile and desktop client spaces, this won’t be an option.

    re. moving to Identi.ca – I’d agree if it was just the tech community, but personally (may just be me), I have a lot of interest in a wide range of people on Twitter, and not all of them would be happy shifting to a more geeky environment. Ultimately, it’d need a “all jump” thing to happen, and that’s unlikely.

  12. Hi Mike,

    On Android, there’s an app that blocks ads across the OS by adding filters to the /etc/hosts file and checks for new filters daily. This could easily be applied to any OS to filter ads in twitter desktop clients, too.

    On identi.ca, you’re right. Probably wouldn’t work unless certain key people moved and created a ripple.

  13. Difficult one – yes, the company has to make money to survive, and ads/subscription appear to be the only options.

    And, I’ve just discovered that they’ve stopped making it easy to get an RSS feed from a particular user without recourse to code/3rd party apps. ( http://support.twitter.com/groups/31-twitter-basics/topics/111-features/articles/15361-how-to-find-your-rss-feed ) As others have said, payment will inevitably change Twitter – and many users don’t have the technical skills required (or the inclination to learn them) to really consider the alternatives; until those have sufficient mass … then they’ll change models.

    Me, personally, I just don’t know. I do find it incredibly useful – but would I be willing to pay. Probably. But, it would depend on the amount. Would I be willing to put up with (aka ignore) ads; more likely.

    • Thanks Emma – yes, the stuff about RSS is interesting – I tweeted a while back that I couldn’t find feeds. My assumption that they were just broken turned out to be wrong…

  14. Great post and comments.
    I’d pay a little, £2-5 personally, to retain access with the people on my twitter stream. I can imagine my work paying but I’d have to play twitter differently if it was purely work funded. One organisation’s digital engagement strategy is another user’s spam.
    What interests me most is, as you say, the undefined business models for provision and use of these social web type tools. If advertising is the best chance of enabling free services, I’m intrigued about the metrics advertisers use and over what time periods. I’ve never understood tv ratings, how can they really know people and watching and how can they know cause and effect, and most interestingly, what hit rate do they expect?
    I suspect the onus put on public sector organisations to prove return on investment on social media engagement is way higher that commercial advertising.
    Bit of a tangent but relevant to our world, I think?

    • @Amber – thanks, and yes, I think the question about business models (and thus ROI) for these tools remains pretty difficult to tie down. My feeling is that some areas are beginning to understand _what_ the metrics are and how to use them but this is still very much in its infancy, IMO. Web metrics themselves are hard enough, and we’ve at least got some sense of quantitative analysis! As soon as it becomes about “social reach”, we’re at sea to a certain extent..!

  15. I think this demonstrates the fundamental problem with twitter. It’s not a business, it’s an infrastructure. The closest comparison would be email. What if email had launched as email.com, and all emails went through the same server? Scaling it would have been near impossible (sound familiar?!) as would paying for the resources to support it without bastardising the service (again, familiar?!). As popular as twitter is today, and as much as I love it, I don’t see it having a long term future without it moving towards being a protocol (open and interacting with other similar services), rather than a one stop shop. And if it becomes this protocol, it looses any remaining business value! Seems like a vicious circle to me.

    • @Ian – that’s such a blindingly succinct summing up of the problem! Couldn’t agree more – which I suppose calls much more strongly towards the Diaspora model. The problem is yes, how to balance the business model with usability but also ultimately how the mass of users are convinced to shift from one service to another…

      • Thanks! Yes, I find the Diaspora model really interesting, but most people seem to see it as just that – a curiosity. Also, it seems to be more taking on facebook than twitter. What I’d love to see is an open microblogging protocol. The twitter communications model has so much going for it, but with everything going through the same system it’s a massive bottleneck, not to mention drain on resources. Facebook seem to be managing very well having the monopoly on full featured social networking, and they can monetise it through highly targeted advertising. Twitters greatest strength (simplicity) is also it’s biggest problem when it comes to monetisation.

  16. Interesting. Seems very much in the realm of the techy at the moment though. Would love to see something like that go mainstream.

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