Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
An interesting blog from HBR. As regular readers will know I am ambivalent about Twitter – finding it “too noisy” for my tastes.
Did you hear? Twitter’s initial public offering is coming. News of this has created a fresh round of pontification across digital media. There are already winners and losers. There are reasons to worry (140 of them, naturally). Its IPO is “unusual.”
The IPO will finally put a market value on Twitter—is it $10 billion? $100 billion?—and many digital types hope and believe it will validate new media.
Then again, what if Twitter isn’t really new media after all? Before you get ecstatic that Wall Street is about to validate new media, listen to one researcher, who has come to the conclusion that Twitter is becoming “a non–evolving, static structure, like TV…It’s just going to become a new way to follow celebrities, corporations, and the like.”
That’s Olivier Toubia, from Columbia Business School, who co-authored research on Twitter calledIntrinsic versus Image–Related Motivations in Social Media: Why do People Contribute to Twitter (pdf), which was recently published in Marketing Science. We caught up with Toubia to talk about his research and the evidence that Twitter’s becoming, as he says, “a traditional channel.”
HBR: How do you come to the conclusion that Twitter is becoming much more like old media than continuing to blaze a new media trail?
Toubia: My colleague Andrew Steven from the University of Pittsburgh and I researched how people use Twitter. But we didn’t ask them “Why do you post?” We did an experiment. We created 100 synthetic accounts to increase the number of followers from some subset of 2,500 non-commercial Twitter users. These were very realistic accounts with avatars, and followers, and posts. We literally made people more popular and watched how they responded.
How did they respond?
For users that already have many followers, as they become more popular they become less active. It appears that at some threshhold, they have earned their status as “popular” and they stop working as hard to earn more followers.
This assumes that people’s motivation in posting is to earn followers.
What we know for sure is that non-commercial users don’t have any direct financial incentive to post. We had two hypotheses as to why they do post. One is that they like to share information with world, that they want to reach others. This is an intrinsic motivation. They enjoy the act of contributing. The second hypothesis is that posting is self-promotional, a way to attract followers to be able to earn higher status on the platform. Judging by how people behaved once they achieved popularity—they posted far less content—we believe the second hypothesis is probably the primary motivation. If the primary motivation were to share with the world, most people would not slow down posting just because they were popular. But most people did slow down as they gained followers.
Okay, but how does this make Twitter more like old media TV than new media?
So as Twitter becomes mature, the connections become stable. There are fewer new people and there’s less room for new following. When that happens, posting will not be a way to attract new followers. If the motivation for non-commercial users is to gain followers and they can’t do that, they are not motivated. They can’t get the value out of the platform that they want. If they stick around, the value proposition has to shift away from contributing , to become more popular, and toward consuming content, to be entertained.
What content will they consume?
Content that’s produced by people who still have an incentive to contribute: commercial entities and celebrities. Professional content creators. You end up with commercial users who get value by producing content for non-commercial users who get value by consuming it—just like TV.
So does this mean Twitter is being overvalued as a new media brand as it approaches its IPO?
It’s hard to answer the question. All I can say is that the value from Twitter, whatever it is, will come from traditional channels rather than from conversations between people. It has more value as a traditional media platform than as a platform for conversations which is what we think of it as. I don’t know how much peer-to-peer communication and information sharing factored into the valuation, but it’s clear to me that’s not where the value will be.
Twitter maybe not as disruptive to media as we thought it was?
It’s going to end up much less that revolutionary grassroots source of ideas and will instead converge toward a traditional commercial venture . It will be harder and harder for non-commercial users with interesting things to say to cut through the clutter. It will be harder to get noticed. Also, it’s a bit unrealistic to expect everyone to have value to bring to the platform, so we end up with the professionals producing the content, just like with TV and magazines and so forth.
Do you find this at all sad?
I think it will be sad, yes. The effect when something good gets attention and everyone gets on to it inevitably affects what made it special in the first place. But maybe this just settles into what it will be and the next grassroots social media movement will come along. It’s not the end of social media.
What do you think the executives at Twitter think about this idea that they’re becoming old media?
I think they understand it. You can actually see it in their positioning. I kept two screen grabs of Twitter’s “About Us” page. One is from more than two years ago, and it was all about sharing and the grassroots aspect of spreading ideas around the world, and the fact that it’s “powered by the people”:
Now, they’re saying, you don’t even have to post, just come and be here on our platform. It’s about following and even goes so far as to suggest “you don’t have to tweet to get value from Twitter”:
They have changed their positioning significantly. They’re courting consumers, not producers. They’re trying to monetize eyeballs, which is very much an old media way of doing business.