What the Instagram fight says about Twitter as a media platform

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Remember when Twitter was just a free and open conduit for whatever content its users wanted to distribute? Those days are long gone now, replaced by Twitter’s desire to control and monetize as much of its platform as possible, and as much of the content that flows through it. The latest skirmish in this ongoing battle came on Wednesday, when Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom confirmed that the service has removed support for Twitter’s “expanded tweets” feature, and therefore photos won’t be showing up in Twitter any more. While Instagram’s relationship with Twitter is complicated, its reasons for doing this should make other media companies stop and think about how they use (or are being used by) Twitter as well.

As noted by Nick Bilton in a New York Times piece and by my colleague Erica Ogg — and confirmed by a post at the official Twitter blog — what Instagram has done is to remove support for the expanded view of tweets that shows up on the Twitter website and in its official apps. These tweets have a special pane that displays excerpts from blog posts and news stories published by certain partners, or photos and videos from certain external services. Twitter originally launched this as something called “expanded tweets” but it has since become a much more ambitious platform called “Twitter Cards.”

Instagram wanted to capture the value instead of Twitter

A number of services and content providers (including GigaOM) have implemented support for Twitter Cards, on the assumption that showing readers more of your content wherever they are is a good thing. But judging by Systrom’s comments at the LeWeb conference in Paris, Instagram at some point clearly decided that doing this transferred too much of the value of its content to Twitter instead of allowing it to capture that value itself. As he put it:

“This is an evolution of just where we are and where we want links from our content to go… This is not a consequence of us getting acquired. This is a consequence of us doing the best thing for our business at this time.”

As Systrom suggested in his remarks, Instagram’s relationship with Twitter is even more complicated than most other services because the company was recently acquired by Facebook — a giant platform that also has ambitions as a media company, and presumably spent almost $1 billion for the photo-sharing service so it could capture some of the referred value of those pictures. On top of all that, Twitter reportedly tried to acquire Instagram before it agreed to Facebook’s offer, and it recently announced that it will be adding photo filters similar to those offered by Instagram.

In some ways the move by Instagram can be seen as retaliation for something Twitter did earlier this year, when it cut off the photo-sharing service’s access to Twitter’s “follow graph,” so that users could no longer easily find their Twitter connections on Instagram. But this isn’t just about Instagram and its Facebook connection, because Twitter did exactly the same thing to Tumblr recently as well — another service that had already implemented the network’s expanded-tweets feature — by cutting off its ability to connect to the Twitter follower-graph API.

It’s about Twitter’s ambitions as a media entity

On one level, this is about Twitter’s desire to become a platform rather than just a dumb pipe for distributing other people’s content, something it clearly believes it has to do in order to monetize its network and thereby justify its alleged $10-billion market value (although some critics have questioned Twitter’s approach to doing this). But it’s also about how that decision is turning Twitter into a media entity — one that is trying hard to monetize or at least to exert some control over content that is being created by other companies, whether it’s Instagram or the New York Times.

So how should media companies think of this manoeuvring by Twitter? Blogging pioneer Dave Winer has warned repeatedly about the dangers of thinking that the service is your friend rather than a full-fledged media competitor, and there are more than a few similarities between what Twitter is doing with its expanded tweets and what Google News and other aggregators do. That kind of behavior has drawn fire from billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch (among others), who has accused Google of “stealing” his content by excerpting the most important parts. Newspapers in some countries including Germany are lobbying for the search engine to pay them in return for this content.

The benefit of having your links and content appear on Twitter is pretty obvious: you can reach new readers, build relationships, entice users to come to your site, and so on. And you could argue that Instagram loses more value than it gains from the expanded-tweets feature because all of its content — that is, an entire photo — is displayed inside Twitter’s frame. By contrast, a blog post or news story should arguably have enough value that showing a small excerpt (something that is arguably permitted by the “fair use” clause in copyright law anyway) shouldn’t be a big deal.

That said, however, I think moves like Instagram has made should get more media companies thinking hard about the relationship they have with Twitter. It is not just a conduit for your content to reach your users whenever and wherever you wish (if it ever was) — it is a proprietary network built by a company with monetization and expansion on its mind, and your content is part of that equation. What are you getting out of it and why? And will that change in the future as Twitter’s mission and vision evolve? And what will you do if it does?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Faramarz Hashemi</a

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