As Twitter has been evolving over the past year or so — an evolution that has caused some upheaval in the company’s ecosystem of developers and power users, many of whom seem to feel slighted by Twitter’s behavior — it hasn’t always been clear what Twitter wanted to be when it grew up. Did it want to be the cool user-generated news network for revolutions in Egypt, or the handmaiden to traditional media players like CNN and NBC, driving Twitter users to their TV programs? In a recent interview with American Public Media’s Marketplace radio show, CEO Dick Costolo made it pretty clear what he sees as the company’s future, and it is as a complementary “second screen” for existing media.
In the interview, Costolo also talked about the evolution of founder Jack Dorsey’s role at the company, although he didn’t discuss reports published by the New York Times and others that said Twitter’s creator had to reduce his day-to-day role overseeing product design because people found him difficult and indecisive. And he remained circumspect about when (or if) the company plans to go public, as he has been in other interviews, saying only that it’s “not on our radar right now.” But Costolo also talked about what he sees as the most compelling feature of Twitter — namely, its ability to turn the news inside out and show us what others like ourselves are thinking about a global news event:
“We used to have a filtered, one-way view of events in the world from the media — whether it was a sporting event like the Olympics or an event like the presidential debates last week. America’s perspective of it, or the world’s perspective of that event, would be seen through the lens of the way that the media described it to them… now with Twitter, people want to know what everyone else thinks and we’re getting this inside-out, multi-perspective view of what’s going on right now as it happens from everybody else that’s watching the same thing we’re watching.”
What’s interesting about Costolo’s description of Twitter’s key feature are the examples that he chooses to focus on: the Olympics and the presidential debate. Both were huge traffic drivers for both Twitter and the broadcast networks who aired them — according to the Twitter blog, there were more than 10 million tweets sent during the two hours that the presidential debate was on, and the Olympics sparked about 150 million tweets, according to the company. Although some have argued that Twitter as a “second screen” is a distraction during such events, it’s obvious that plenty of people disagree.
Twitter is complementary to media, Costolo says
But the Olympics were more than just an event; they were also the subject of a carefully choreographed partnership between the official broadcaster and Twitter. There was a custom news hub curated by Twitter staff (geo-gated, of course, due to NBC’s licensing restrictions) and in the wake of the Games, the company’s head of media partnerships boasted to the New York Times about how much the Twitter partnership had increased viewership for NBC’s broadcast, saying “What we saw is that it was an amazing daytime-teaser trailer, driving people into prime time.”
That partnership also caused some controversy after a Twitter staffer alerted NBC to the fact that a British journalist had posted a senior executive’s email address without his permission, which is against Twitter’s privacy rules. The journalist’s account was quickly suspended, which left Twitter with a bit of a black eye from a public-relations perspective, since its motto has always been “let the tweets flow” and both Costolo and general counsel Alex Macgillivray have talked about how Twitter is the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” Some said Twitter had lost its users’ trust.
What seems clear from Costolo’s discussion on Marketplace is that this kind of corporate partnership with existing media outlets, and likely television networks specifically, is where the company’s future lies — for better or worse. As he described it:
“I view it as very, very complementary to the news outlets. In fact, one of the things we saw during the Olympics is that Twitter actually… drove tune-in to the Olympics. [and] what was happening was people would see on Twitter something like, wow, the U.S. women’s 4-by-100 meter relay team just broke the world record — and then they would make sure they tuned in that night to watch it, when they might not otherwise even know that women’s track and field was going to be on that night. So I think it is incredibly complementary to news and media in a way that maybe other technologies haven’t been in the past.”
Costolo also talked in the interview about how the company fights on behalf of its users when they are involved in court cases like the one involving Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris, in which the New York district attorney forced Twitter to provide personal information about Harris, including content that he had posted on Twitter. But when it comes to the kind of media model that the company seems to be pinning its hopes on, it sounds like being the “second screen” for public events broadcast by existing media players is the future. Whether that will bring Twitter fame and fortune remains to be seen.