Is This The End of Twitter As We Know It?

On Twitter today, home timelines currently show every single tweet made by those users whom we follow. We enjoy equally unfettered access to our followers—every single tweet we send appears chronologically in their streams. This may soon change, however, according to a recent announcement from Twitter.

On Feb. 13, the company revealed the ability to filter Twitter streams (such as the stream on a mobile app). In short, Twitter’s algorithm grades tweets, and developers set a filter value (e.g. none, low, medium, high) to control the volume and quality of tweets that appear within their applications. While currently intended for third-party developers, Twitter can apply this to our home timelines and other feeds within its platform at any time, affecting them in the manner that EdgeRank filters our Facebook news feeds.

If you’re  not familiar with EdgeRank, its the algorithm that controls who among our Facebook friends sees our posts. EdgeRank ranks all posts connected to a user to understand the importance of that person’s messages to others on Facebook. Posts from users with the highest EdgeRank reach the most people; posts from users with a lower EdgeRank reach fewer people (read this if you want more details on how this works).

Why, Twitter, Why?

Why would Twitter change what to date has been an open platform for all to enjoy? Money.

Twitter isn’t yet a mature company (so says Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo), and there’s compelling evidence that suggests it isn’t yet turning a profit (Twitter is privately and investor-held, so we can’t see their books to know for sure). There’s speculation that it will seek an IPO in 2013, and going public would place greater pressure on the organization to become profitable. In other words, it’s business model is subject to change.

All of this appears remarkably similar to Facebook’s recent history. The company went public in May 2012, and soon thereafter “tweaked” EdgeRank, a move reported to reduce the number of news feeds a company’s posts reached organically by 40-50%The result? For a company to ensure that its Facebook posts go beyond the core 12-15% of “friends” who always receive them (best case scenario), it must now pay for advertising.

The ability to filter tweets—already deemed Twitter’s version of EdgeRank—would force a similar result. With an algorithm actively judging each Twitter profile’s quality and automatically applying a filter value based on that assessment, companies would be forced to pay to reach a wider audience, thereby boosting Twitter’s ad revenue. Photographers using Twitter to promote their businesses would suffer a similar fate. The net we currently cast with each tweet, in other words, would become drastically smaller, only to be increased in size again at a cost.

The Implications for Photographers

Twitter hasn’t yet shared details on how its algorithm works, but it almost assuredly considers a weighted aggregate of responses to tweets (i.e. retweets, replies, favorites), the authority of profiles that respond (i.e. are they “influencers”?), total follower count, recency, etc., to calculate the overall value of a user’s profile. For photographers who market on Twitter (and other social media), this should prompt a close examination of how you use it.

I’ve written frequently about a destructive social media behavior I call the photographer’s monologue, most recently on this blog in the post You Should Be a Social Media Ambivert (and also herehere, and here). You’ve probably seen this in action—good photographers making good images who maintain social media profiles, blogs, or both focused mainly (even exclusively) on their photography.

This may sound harmless, but it’s not. From a marketing perspective, the reason this monologue is destructive is simple: people go online in search of solutions to their problems. While it may be the case that a particular photographer’s services, products or prints are the best solution, the monologue doesn’t help people find them, despite thousands of searches that occur daily for photography-related items. In fact, the monologue’s net result is that the perpetrator becomes largely ignored.

Social media is a two-way medium—it’s excellent at facilitating dialog, even in the form of 140-character conversations—but the monologue treats it like a push medium. That’s another way to say “advertising”. It’s a way to say that when we monologue, we treat our photographs as though they’re more important than the needs of our prospective customers.

The disconnect between people and pushers occurs because what many of us are doing online—in web search, on blogs, forums, and social media and company websites—is self-directing our own purchasing process. This is the concept of the customer journey in action, a process of learning that’s fueled by information. Exceptions exist—persistence may pay off here and there. But if the notion is to leverage social media strategically, as part of a broader, efficient, measurable approach to attracting customers online, the monologue must stop.

The real change in behavior that we’ve witness is that before the web, people were constrained to asking questions of salespeople. Today, however, we have the web and its boundless information. This helped popularize content marketing, which at its most basic level is the process of publishing original content—blog posts, videos, podcasts, eBooks, DVDs, etc.—designed to answer the common questions people ask when contemplating a need or problem for which a particular product or service is well-suited.
Six Reasons Photographers Should Embrace Content Marketing
It’s beyond the scope of this post to cover content marketing in detail, but I’ll conclude by proposing that for photographers who believe in business potential of the web, content marketing represents one of your most likely paths to attracting customers online.

This is also been proven, so you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are six more compelling reasons to embrace content marketing:

#1 Interesting content is a top three reason people follow others (people, companies, brands) on social media.

#2 Websites with blogs receive in 55% more traffic than those without.

#3 Companies with blogs get 97% more inbound links than others (search engines reward blogs with inbound links from authoritative, relevant sites with better search rank).

#4 Search engines personalize search results by prioritizing content that people within our social circles have shared. Example: Search Plus Your World.

#5 Search engines don’t like thin content, something many photography websites suffer from. This is what Google’s Panda update was all about.

#6 Organic search already works on the notion of authority. Facebook, using EdgeRank, does, as well, and Twitter is likely to follow suit. Content that gets shared and/or linked to is how these entities judge authority. Content that creates authority is online currency.

Your Turn

What are your thoughts? Do you think Twitter is justified in implementing this change? Do you agree with the challenges and opportunities for photographers as explained in this post?

4 Responses to “Is This The End of Twitter As We Know It?”

  1. I really hope Twitter doesn't force this on it's users. This kind of behavior is the very same reason I left Facebook, completely deleted my profile. I'll do the same to Twitter if they think that limiting what I see from the accounts I've decided to follow is somehow better for me.

  2. Twitter is justified, from a commercial perspective. We, Twitter users, all lose when that "algorithm" is applied on Twitter,i.e, the more commercialistic paradigm. Twitter will probably gain income/capital, allowing expansion into a reductionist, market driven enterprise realm. But, your comments pointing the way to our own efficient commercial exploitation of social media can be quite helpful, I think.

  3. I'm a little uncertain. For me, Facebook is no match for Twitter as far as reach is concerned. It may depend on what kind of photographer you are and in which sector. For an art project with aspirations, Twitter seems to go so far and then reaches an impasse. But in initial stages anyway, reach may be more important than cash return and investment resources are in any case limited

  4. This is course is a shame but it is inevitable. Twitter needs to earn money and it seems a reasonable way to change how we see tweets. None of us will like it but we will evolve the way we use twitter as it changes.

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