For users, Twitter is a bit of a tabula rasa: A very simple tool that each user makes unique through their interests, friends and usage patterns. I never need to look farther than the trending tab to understand that. Most days, I have no idea what or who most of those things are.
Some have said this fill-in-the-blank simplicity of the product is the reason a dysfunctional early life of rotating CEOs didn’t manage to kill the company. And yet, Twitter certainly did change with each of those CEOs.
Under Jack Dorsey, Twitter seemed more about friends knowing where other friends were and what they were doing at any given time. Appropriate since it was the site’s early experimental days and the dawn of social networks, but also appropriate because Dorsey created Twitter out of a strange love for traffic and the courier logistics of complex cities. Under Evan Williams Twitter became a place to discover breaking news. Again, appropriate if you recall that Williams’ whole career is about different ways of disseminating, democratizing, and sharing news and information– whether via Blogger, Twitter or now, Medium.
At Code Conference this week, it occurred to me that Twitter is taking on its third vibe under Dick Costolo: It’s now heavily about entertainment. Costolo spoke about Vine’s ability to unearth talent, the same way YouTube has for years. He spoke about the deep synergies between Twitter and television, Twitter and sports and with Twitter and music. Cozy relationships with producers like Ryan Seacrest, deals with the NBA and with Billboard prove this isn’t happenstance– it’s orchestrated.
And that’s fitting because Costolo is a former stand up comedian, pop cultural enthusiast, and guy who is amused by the little things in life. For christ sake he had Jon Luc Picard help ring Twitter’s opening bell.
While a focus on entertainment may seem less worthy than Twitter’s Arab Spring moment, it’s a smart move. Twitter doesn’t necessarily lose the ability to connect friends or inform people of what’s happening with a broader emphasis on entertainment. And really, Twitter has never been a perfect tool for friends and news. Facebook does things that Twitter can’t when it comes to stalking high-school exes and sharing photos of kids. The real time conversational aspect matters less. Meanwhile the insanely growing “messaging graph” is doing a better job of scratching that what are you doing this moment itch. Real time conversations matter hugely with news. But Twitter is an imperfect way of distributing information– as we’ve seen time and time again when false information spread around the world at a lightening quick pace.
Entertainment doesn’t have to pass a pesky bar of truth and it’s far more universal than wanting to know what your friend is doing right now.
Also the best companies always double down on the single thing they have their competitors don’t. Twitter has always had one big advantage over Facebook: Celebrities. Twitter can have a measurable impact on entertainment: Costolo cited Nielsen studies that showed a correlation with higher ratings and Twitter. It gives fans a way to interact with a major sporting or entertainment event as we saw with Ellen’s selfie seen around the world.
All of that means more opportunities to make money. There are huge dollars in entertainment– more than in news and certainly more than in what your friend had for lunch. Twitter is the only force on earth that argues against time shifting. Sure you can TiVo the Oscars. But you better not open Twitter for two hours if you do.
And lastly, with “just” 300 million users or so Twitter desparately needs to go mainstream. Like it or not, this is a generation of consumer Web companies graded on the Facebook and LinkedIn curves. You gotta either have the size of the former or the monetization of the latter.
The lowest common denominator on global culture are movies, music, TV, and sports. As his friend Ryan Seacrest can attest, more people vote for American Idol hopefuls than elected officials.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]