twitter-earningsTwitter today announced that it has updated its mobile apps with the ability to upload four images with a single tweet and to tag users in photos shared on its service. The update makes images, which have long been an afterthought on the service, into a more important aspect of the Twitter experience. It is also the latest update to make Twitter even more like Facebook.

First the company added photo filters to compete with the Facebook-owned Instagram and a dedicated Facebook Camera app that has been all but abandoned since its 2012 debut. Then it redesigned a small subset of profile pages with a look ripped from Facebook’s service. After that it reportedly experimented with removing the at-symbols and hashtags that defined its service in its earliest days. Now it’s taking one of Facebook’s most important features, the ability to share a large number of images and let the people in them know that they’re online, and copying it almost feature-for-feature to a service that used to hide images behind links.

There has always been some cross-pollination of features between Facebook and Twitter. While Twitter was busy making its service more approachable to consumers, Facebook was busy adding hashtags and other features to expand the reach of its users’ status updates. Both services have sought to break down the information silos between mobile applications. Both have given their users the ability to share the songs they’re listening to or news they’re reading. The services are more alike than either company is willing to admit.

But the release of this feature after months of complaints from both investors and journalists that signing up for Twitter — or convincing friends that the service is worthwhile — is an ordeal probably isn’t a coincidence. Becoming more like Facebook might introduce more friction into a service previously known for its bare-bones approach to communication, but it will also make Twitter more familiar to the many people who already know Facebook.

Reactions from around the Web

The Verge offers an alternative explanation for the new photo features:

Were Twitter’s latest features inspired by Ellen Degeneres’ group selfie, the most retweeted photo ever? Perhaps. If each celebrity in her photo were tagged, it would indeed be a lot simpler to follow them all. Twitter has traditionally struggled with discovery, and has experimented with various ways to show new users who to follow and why to follow them.

But on a broader scale, Twitter likely added tagging for the same reason Instagram did nearly one year ago. Twitter is all about ‘the now,’ so it’s easy to lose track of quality content over time. Photo tags give the company the ability to index photos by person. The company already gave each user profile a photo gallery showing their recent uploads. Perhaps soon, Twitter will also also add a “Photos of me” tab the same way Instagram did.

Gigaom notes that the new feature might help Twitter kill its usernames:

Not only is this a big step for media sharing on the platform — particularly because it allows multiple pieces of rich media into a single tweet that is both visible and embeddable from mobile and desktop — but it also shows Twitter’s efforts to push usernames into the background of tweets. For example, when users tag up to 10 people in a photo, those handles don’t actually show up in the tweet itself. Instead, a list of the usernames shows up subtly above the photo — giving users ample space to alert friends without gobbling up valuable 140-character real estate. While it looks like a page torn out of Facebook’s playbook, tagging photos could be the first step towards dissolving the need to “@” anyone entirely.

Farhad Manjoo wrote about the struggle between Twitter’s desire to stay weird and its desire to please investors during his brief stint at the Wall Street Journal:

The trouble is, when it’s public, Twitter won’t have the luxury of staying a relatively small, “pretty good” business. Investors will want growth—and Twitter will be tempted to give in. That may already be happening. According to the New Yorker’s Matt Buchanan, Twitter’s coming mobile app redesign will push a graphically “rich” experience that automatically expands photos and videos (including from ads) directly in a user’s tweet stream. A few weeks ago, Twitter unveiled another feature meant to make the service more inviting-when people chat with each other on the service, their tweets are now joined together, breaking the chronological ordering that has long reigned on Twitter.

Mr. Buchanan says these changes are mimicking Facebook’s News Feed, and I can’t help but agree. And that’s a shame. To me, what makes Twitter such an addictive place is that it’s precisely tailored to my needs as a public person. The risk is that by becoming more inviting, it also becomes more generic: It becomes less like Twitter and more like everything else. That could be good for its bottom line, but @fmanjoo isn’t going to like it.

Business Insider explained why Twitter might want to be more like Facebook when the company started rolling out its new profile pages:

This Facebook-esque change is particularly interesting in light of Twitter’s most recent earnings call, in which CEO Dick Costolo admitted that Twitter was difficult for new users to navigate.

He said that Twitter was taking steps to make its user interface easier for newbies to use. Making it look more like Facebook – which most people are used to – might reflect those efforts.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]