At the Dive Into Media conference on Monday, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said the company doesn’t see itself as a media entity, although he admited it is in the media business. It’s not surprising Twitter wouldn’t want to come right out and call itself a media company, since a growing part of its business is working with traditional media companies — including television networks and movie studios — to promote their content through its network. But in most of the ways that matter, Twitter definitely qualifies as a media entity, which is why its decision to selectively censor the user-generated content that flows through its network is so important.
In fact, the criticism Twitter got after its announcement that it would start selectively blocking tweets (if requested to do so by a government or court order) is just more confirmation it is a media company. Its decision drew attention for the same reason that people reacted suspiciously when Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal invested so heavily in the company — a reaction almost identical to the response many had when News Corp. billionaire Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal.
It may be handled well, but censorship is still censorship
When you’re a media company, the question of who ultimately controls the levers that distribute content is a crucial issue. How would readers of the New York Times respond if the newspaper said it planned to black out certain pages or remove certain articles if requested to do so by a government edict? Probably very much like some Twitter users have responded to the company’s recent announcement (although the NYT and other newspapers don’t print stories if they are subject to a publication ban by the courts, which some might argue is roughly analogous to Twitter’s new policy).
As a number of smart observers like Jillian York of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci have pointed out since the censorship furor began, there is actually a lot to like about the company’s new policy. For one thing, it’s going to be transparent about these demands, and says it will try hard to resist government attempts to block certain topics during events like the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. It’s also relatively easy to get around the country-specific blocking, and the Twitter API would probably make it easy to re-route tweets as well.
That said, however, there is still a lot that remains unclear about how this will work in practice. The company’s approach to such requests in a foreign dictatorship like Egypt or Libya might be obvious, but what happens when the authorities in a place like Britain try to force the company to remove tweets that breach one of its sweeping “super-injunctions” — which prevent anyone from even mentioning that there is a publication ban on information about a certain legal case? How will that work?
What kind of media company does Twitter want to be?
Dick Costolo may want to avoid calling Twitter a media entity, in part because he doesn’t want to jeopardize any relationships with existing media companies like Disney or NBC.And he is right in the sense that Twitter doesn’t create any of its own content in the same way a TV network or a newspaper does. But YouTube doesn’t create a lot of its own content either — does that mean it isn’t a media entity? Hardly. In fact, the filtering and curation and surfacing of relevant content is arguably an even more important media function than it has ever been, and that seems to be the direction in which Twitter is going.
Google also likes to strenuously deny it’s a media company, but it is a media entity, whether it wants to be one or not, and so is Twitter. They may be a different kind of media company — one whose business consists primarily of distributing other people’s content, filtering and curating it, then monetizing the attention around that — but they are members of the media nevertheless. And as Peter Kafka pointed out during his interview with Costolo at the Dive Into Media conference, the fact that Twitter relies primarily on advertising revenue is just another sign of that.
There’s an existing category of media company that looks a lot like Twitter in many ways, and that is the newswire provider — a company like Associated Press, for example. While it also has a lot of staff who create their own content, the bulk of its actual business consists of distributing content from other media entities to various customers. And as I’ve pointed out in the past, when it comes to distribution of real-time breaking news, Twitter has become the newswire for many users.
Because of the way it’s structured, there has always been tension between AP’s interests as a business — including the monetization of the content it distributes — and those of its member newspapers. In a similar way, there is a tension between Twitter’s business interests and those of its content creators: its users. Twitter has its own reasons for making the decisions it does, and the new censorship policy may or may not be the best solution to a bad situation, but that doesn’t change the fact that its users are the ones who ultimately create all that content — and if Twitter’s interests and those of its users get too far apart, it may find it has a lot less content to distribute.