The social capital of Twitter is valued in the billions—and all thanks to us. Too bad we won't be seeing a penny of it.
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
The downfall of advertising is the promised experience must, at some point, be diminished into a thing you can put in a shopping bag and take home with you. The Internet offers a platform where that moment of transformation can be prolonged, and in many cases the experience of the promotional fantasy made perpetual, obviating the need for the good itself.
As an advertising platform, Twitter offers a paradoxical experience of making it easier to buy goods and services that have taken advantage of the its consumer targeting, while encouraging users to contribute to the maintenance of the object fantasy under the auspices of being social. Twitter makes money almost exclusively from selling advertising slots and services that momentarily interrupt the conversational flow for its 200 million users with posts about 48 hour airfare sales and the current location of the Korean taco truck. The company also sells slots on its list of current trending topics to companies that want to insert themselves in the daily churn of subjects.
The emergence of Twitter-centric marketing will make it easier to demand more money from popular stories.
The company recently partnered with Adobe Systems Inc. to further open its ad services to third parties who might further parse the habits and wants of users into sellable slots and algorithms. Facebook has used a similar structure, treating its advertising platform as a modifiable tool, which has been immensely popular with advertisers. In 2012, 60% of Facebook's advertising revenue came from promos purchased using third-party software. This approach is already leading to some significant changes in the way advertising money is courted by other media companies that depend on it. The New York Times recently announced a product called Sparking Stories that tracks which of their stories are trending on Twitter, allowing advertisers to target their ad-buys on only those stories they know are being seen by the widest group of people.
The emergence of Twitter-centric marketing will make it easier to demand more money from popular stories while making it clear that most of the media that's published onto the Internet disappears down a hole of ignominy. How much is a story worth when no one wants to buy a sidebar ad for it? The tethering of worth to audience size and advertiser payments is not something the Internet has created, but it shows how the Internet's development has been affected by the economic and social models that existed before it. There has been a long-running and not especially productive debate as to the ethics of reporting, "newsworthiness" (itself an implicit confession that a story must have pre-existing market worth before it can become news), and the influence of ad-sales on editorial.
With the emergence of media titans like BuzzFeed, there is no longer any pretense about Internet content having merged with audience baiting promotionalism. The site's publishers are proud of the serious work the revenue generated by animal pictures and list articles with self-evidently untrue headlines make possible. Yet, the very fact that the effort to make and publish things is undertaken in a professional setting—with cubicles and company-owned computers and conference rooms—creates an implicit pressure of to justify the cost of the thing's production. Newsworthiness becomes anything a large enough group of people will care about, and journalism the praxis that adds gravity to the subject that's been chosen only because of its ability to draw a crowd.
Twitter and Facebook are natural extensions of this logic, content-production platforms that simply serve the needs of the crowd by subdividing it into smaller groups that individuals are given ownership over under the auspices of a "personal brand." In allowing users to take part in the creation of content meant to bait them—from rhetorical ping pong matches over political scandal to long spirals of corporate-sponsored hashtag improv—the good being sold has finally become the experience of consumption. An infinite feedback loop is created where literally anything can be made social capital when a person adds their personal experience with something to the social media pile, like a digital breadline where our daily portion of social affirmation is guaranteed only so long as we have something to say, something that's fit to print. This tool is worth a lot to advertisers, offering not just the attention of the audience, but their enthusiastic labor. The value of that service is, at present, $10 billion and rising. You're not going to get any of it.