Twitter Pulls a Facebook

Twitter Pulls a Facebook
With its IPO looming, the service is adding photos and videos to attract advertising, which will irritate users (Photograph by Betsie Van Der Meer/Getty Images)
Photograph by Betsie Van Der Meer/Getty Images

Twitter quietly rolled out a new feature—or irritant, depending on how you look at it—for users of its website on Tuesday, as well as for its iOS and Android apps: Photo and video previews now show up as expanded images directly in a tweet instead of requiring users to click on a link. Some fans of the move welcomed the new feature, but others seemed taken aback by all the multimedia filling their streams, and by the Facebook-style feel it gives to Twitter.

While the company said in a blog post that it made the changes so users could enjoy their friends’ photos and videos more easily, it seems fairly obvious that the move is also being driven by a desire to boost Twitter’s advertising revenue. That’s the same thing Facebook sees when it looks at Instagram, as Om notes, and presumably one of the reasons it offered—and then quickly removed—the ability to turn off autoplaying of embedded video clips.

Twitter allows users of its iOS and Android apps to turn off image previews and also to restrict potentially offensive or adult images, and the Tweetdeck desktop app has a number of controls for blocking or downsizing previews, but there is no such setting for the Web version—and most users accept default settings in any case, as Twitter probably knows (the new feature applies only to photos hosted by Twitter and to Vine videos).

In addition to appealing to advertisers, which now get to insert what amount to banner ads into their streams (and into the streams of users as well, via promoted tweets) the feature is likely aimed at attracting new users and encouraging them to use Twitter—something the tech industry calls “on-boarding.” And some, including Twitter’s former director of platform, Ryan Sarver, pointed out that anyone who is irritated can always block people who overuse the feature.

Despite all that advice, however, it’s obvious what is happening to Twitter, as it prepares to go public in a couple of weeks and tries to come up with reasons to justify its estimated $15 billion market value: Like Facebook, it is focusing on advertising, and to do that it has to push more and more content into the stream and boost engagement levels as high as possible.

The problem with doing this, of course, is that it could wind up annoying as many users as it attracts—or more. There have already been anecdotal reports of Facebook use declining, with some users blaming the abundance of advertising, and a group of advertisers told Forrester Research recently that the effectiveness of their ads is a lot lower than they expected, in part because of the noise on the network and a lack of engagement.

In a lot of ways, Twitter is going through much the same transition that the Web has since its early days: Many pages used to consist largely of text, in part because bandwidth constraints and browsers didn’t allow for much in the way of imagery. As the Web matured, pages began to include more and more pictures and even video, in an attempt to get more users to click—especially on ads. But that never really happened, and in the process the Web got quite ugly.

Twitter is also arguably in more danger of suffering from what some call the MySpace effect (an excess of ads and gaudy images) than some other services, because until fairly recently it was such a stripped-down, text-heavy experience. Then along came expanded tweets or Twitter “cards,” and the writing was on the wall. But will the number of enthusiastic advertisers make up for the number of irritated and/or overwhelmed users?

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