Last Friday I had an interesting, albeit brief, Twitter conversation with Matthew Ingram of GigaOm. Ingram has long argued that Twitter is a media company, and his story from Friday continued that line of thought. I took issue with the metaphor and the characterization of Twitter as a media company.
I don’t want to get too hung up with the semantics of what constitutes a “media company” and what doesn’t -- starting with the big question: “Does it have to create it’s own content?” The real interesting question is the last one: Does the power actually lie in Twitter’s hands? I don't think so, and the fact that it doesn't is what makes it not a media company.
Ingram explains it this way:
The reality is that hiring journalists and creating content, as valuable as those things are (and I would like to stipulate that they are hugely valuable, before any traditional media fans get out the tar and feathers) is only part of what constitutes a media entity in the digital age. The other factor that is almost as valuable -- and perhaps even more so, depending on your perspective -- is the ability to aggregate, filter, distribute and monetize that content.
Here he dispenses with the notion that a company needs to create media in order to be a media company, that the process of aggregating, filtering, and distributing media is what makes Twitter so powerful. The problem is that Twitter doesn’t really do all that much of any of those things.
Obviously, there are a few instances where they do; the Discover tab and the Trending Topics both are attempts by Twitter to give you some insight into what’s happening in its network, but by and large, the users do their own curating. They decide who they follow and what information they get. They decide whether they want to share that article or retweet that person.
This is the big difference between Twitter and other social media companies. Facebook, for instance, curates your feed for you, trying to present the posts at the top that you’re most likely to want to see. Flipboard, a company mentioned in the comments, curates your Twitter, Facebook, and (now defunct) Google Reader stream for you and again, tries to present you with the posts you want to see.
Twitter, on the other hand, is just a constant flow of information, tweets from everyone you follow, and that’s what makes it different. It doesn’t meddle in that flow with its own algorithms; it lets its users do the distributing. At a minimum, this is how Twitter wants other media companies to see it: as a tool to facilitate user distribution. Twitter can be a friend to media because Twitter doesn’t have the power, users do.
But it may not always be this way. Ingram referenced software developer and entrepreneur David Winer who warned:
It's not enough to understand where an entity is today. You have to factor in where they came from and use that to infer where they're going. Twitter started off being open to anyone for anything. But over time they're closing things off. Adding rules, some of which clearly anticipate competition, that limit how their service can be used. They have been taking functionality off the table. And it's a reasonable bet that that process will continue, not reverse.
Twitter has unfortunately been cracking down on its developers. They’ve limited how much data one can pull and what you can do with it and have cut down on the number of consumer-facing applications its development community produce, which is a terrible decision for other reasons I won’t get into.
It’s quite possible they’ll move in Facebook’s direction, curating your feed for you, adding more advertisements, and eventually even developing their own content. When that happens, Twitter will become another beast entirely, and if it’s heading in that direction, media companies should be wary.
But until then, Twitter is your friend. Embrace it.