Social media and society

Social media and society

What if Google bought Twitter?

Twitter.

Twitter has been in the news recently, for all the wrong reasons. Business media report that Twitter shareholders are disappointed with the company’s latest results; this follows recent turmoil in the company’s leadership which saw the departure of controversial CEO Dick Costolo and the (temporary) return of co-founder Jack Dorsey until a permanent replacement is found.

All this has served to feed rumours that Google, having recently called time on its own underperforming social network Google+, might be interested in acquiring Twitter. From one perspective, this would clearly make sense – social media are now a key driver of Web traffic and a potentially important advertising market, and Google will not want to remain disconnected from this space for long. On the other hand, though, given its chequered history with the now barely remembered Google Buzz as well as major effort Google+, Twitter users (and the third-party companies that serve this userbase) may well be concerned about what a Google acquisition of the platform may mean for them.

I had the opportunity to explore these questions in some detail in an extended interview with ABC Radio’s Tim Cox last week. In a wide-ranging discussion, we reviewed the issues troubling Google+ and Twitter, and the difficulties facing any player seeking to establish a new social media platform alongside global market leader Facebook. Here’s the audio:

Let us take this conversation further: what if Google did buy Twitter? From my point of view, this could turn out a positive move, if Google treats the platform appropriately (as it did, arguably, with past acquisitions such as Blogger, YouTube, and Google Maps). It’s become very obvious over the past months that Twitter’s stock market listing has been a curse at least as much as a blessing: while it’s raised substantial new capital, of course, it’s also exposed the company to the expectations of shareholders who seem to fundamentally misunderstand what Twitter is or can be.

As a platform, Twitter is not and will never be a competitor to Facebook, whatever its shareholders seem to think. Both might be classed under the overall rubric of “social media”, but any direct comparisons constitute a category error: the appeal of a strong-ties, small-world networks platform like Facebook, where we tend to network predominantly with family and friends, is necessarily fundamentally different from that of a weak-ties, large-world space like Twitter, where we can follow – and attempt to strike up conversations with – celebrities, politicians, and other users outside of our immediate networks.

That’s a very different kind of social network, with its own unique uses, and it is futile to hope that Twitter will eventually attract the same number of users, or the same user activity patterns, as Facebook. Worse still, to try to reshape Twitter in Facebook’s image by force will almost inevitably kill off the platform.

If Google understands this, and treats Twitter appropriately (which probably includes accepting it as a loss leader for the time being), this could well turn the platform’s fortunes around. Twitter’s recognised strengths are as a flat, public, and open network that excels especially in live contexts; Twitter is the place where most recent breaking news stories first broke, and a space where users gather as a temporary public and community to collectively participate in shared experiences from the World Cup to Eurovision. Beyond any marketing hype, it genuinely serves as the pulse of the planet in a great many contexts.

This live insight into what news stories and other information are currently hot (and thus should be served as search results, too) may well be valuable enough for Google to fork out a few billion, even if there still doesn’t seem to be a workable model for generating significant direct advertising revenue from the platform.

But whoever takes on Twitter, one of the first things the new CEO will need to do is to fundamentally rebuild Twitter’s relationship with those on whom, historically, its successes have most depended: the flotilla of third-party developers and researchers that surrounds the Twitter mothership. As Jean Burgess and I have documented in our contribution to the forthcoming collection Digital Methods for Social Science, those developers – and the early adopters and lead users whom they have served – have made the platform what it is: they developed powerful Twitter clients and tools, and laid the groundwork for the social media analytics approaches that have become crucial for making sense of trends on Twitter and elsewhere.

Sadly, though, especially under Dick Costolo Twitter’s relationship with these crucial allies in the promotion of Twitter as a platform and a community soured significantly: abrupt and radical changes to the terms of service of the Twitter API (which govern what data companies and their tools could gain access to) in pursuit of more revenue undermined this crucial third-party ecosystem and stymied further innovation. And if anything, the handful of exceptions from this new, more restrictive régime – such as the Twitter Data Grants for researchers, which supported a total of only six out of 1,300 proposed projects – caused further offence rather than restoring goodwill.

Absent any major new investments, a Twitter relying mainly on the support of its shareholders seems unlikely to change tack in this way – it will continue to chase revenue by attempting to commercialise its data, and in the process also continue to alienate the crucial third-party developer community. This is a path of diminishing returns: the data are valuable only as long as there are popular and meaningful applications for Twitter as a platform, but those applications have historically been created by the third-party developers and the power users they support.

Freed from the short-term, unrealistic demands of the stock market through an acquisition by Google (or another cashed-up investor), on the other hand, Twitter could dial back its desperate efforts to commercialise its APIs and the data they provide, and return to its original, more permissive data access régime in order to nurture and support new efforts at research and development. Such a shift in policy could well be the shot in the arm Twitter needs to ensure its longer-term survival – but it depends on the intervention of a new benefactor. Is Google ready to play – or is it still too disheartened from its past attempts to enter the social media market?