Twitter unveiled an interesting partnership with the NASCAR auto-racing circuit on Thursday, in which the real-time information network has created a kind of portal for the Pocono 400 race this weekend. The site looks like a fairly normal Twitter feed, with one important difference: in addition to highlighting tweets using an algorithm, an editor hired by Twitter will also be selecting or “curating” the stream. If that sounds like the kind of thing a media company might do, it’s probably because it is the kind of thing a media company would do — the NASCAR deal takes Twitter even further into the realm of being a media entity. Should traditional media players be concerned?
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has repeatedly protested that Twitter doesn’t see itself as a media entity and doesn’t want to be one, and there are some obvious reasons why the company wouldn’t want to be seen that way, including the fact that it has been spending a lot of time negotiating partnerships with existing media players such as ESPN. It would likely be a lot harder to make the case that media companies should see the service as a partner if Twitter was promoting itself as a media company (Costolo may also be concerned that media companies don’t typically get nosebleed valuations the way tech companies do).
Curating content is what media companies do
Despite the protests, however, there is plenty of evidence that Twitter is a media entity — not a traditional one, perhaps, but a media company nevertheless. For one thing, its business model relies entirely on advertising around content, which is fundamentally the same model most media companies depend on (Facebook could be seen as a media company for the same reason). The content itself may be entirely user-generated, but then so was much of the content in the early years of the Huffington Post, now a major media player in its own right.
Until recently, Twitter was just a platform that provided easy access to this real-time content created by others. But deals like the NASCAR partnership — and offerings like the email summary powered by its Summify acquisition — are pushing Twitter further and further into the “curation” business, and that is essentially an editorial function.
Selecting tweets and photos about a car race might not seem like journalism, but what Twitter is doing is very similar to what a site like Huffington Post or even a newspaper or sports site might do with an event like NASCAR. A traditional media outlet might also have a columnist write some thoughts about the race as well or send a reporter down into the pits to interview drivers, but pulling together real-time reactions from those involved and from spectators has also become a big part of the media response to a major event.
If something like the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Egypt were to flare up again, Twitter could quite easily adapt the NASCAR model to such an event (although there wouldn’t be the obvious commercial relationship). An editor or editors could function in much the same way that NPR editor Andy Carvin did during the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, curating tweets and even fact-checking photos and videos in real time. That is fundamentally an editorial function, whether Twitter sees it that way or not — and as Columbia University journalism professor Emily Bell notes, the network is already an important source of news.
For media companies, competition is everywhere
I have no idea whether Twitter has any intention of expanding its editorial ambitions, but the NASCAR arrangement could be an interesting precursor to a number of different scenarios: for example, the company could develop (or acquire) tools and services like Storify or Storyful that make it easier to curate and verify real-time news reports, and it could either offer those to existing media players or it could employ them itself with its own news staff. For these reasons and others, blogging pioneer Dave Winer has said he believes that news organizations should absolutely see Twitter as competition — and suspects that the company might even buy a traditional media player at some point.
The most compelling reason for Twitter to move into this kind of area is that it could increase the engagement that users have with the network, something that is fairly crucial when it comes to appealing to advertisers. Being a platform and allowing anyone to distribute content through your network is great — but coming up with reasons why users should spend time on your pages (and look at the ads) is also pretty attractive from a business point of view. Can Twitter do both at the same time? Can it offer itself as a partner for media companies while also tip-toeing into the editorial end of the business?
If nothing else, the Twitter deal with NASCAR reinforces the fact that for traditional media companies, competition is everywhere — just as Twitter itself can hire editors to curate and aggregate content, so brands and advertisers like the auto-racing entity are becoming publishers and content creators in their own right, with all the same tools that media outlets have at their disposal. Everyone is a media entity now.