As chat platforms like Snapchat and WhatsApp continue their meteoric growth and expand their ambitions, Twitter is trying to stay on top of the social heap by launching a much-requested feature — namely, the ability to send private messages or DMs to a group, which the company announced on its blog on Tuesday morning. Also being rolled out is another feature that might be even more important for the social network’s future: native video, which Twitter hopes will allow it to be more competitive with YouTube and Facebook.
Until now, direct messages could only be sent to a single user, but Twitter has been talking for some time about wanting to add more features to that side of its business, and recently launched the ability to send tweets via DM. The direct message side of the business has been somewhat overlooked in the past, some users argue: the service added the ability to receive DMs from someone you don’t follow and then just as quickly removed it, and synchronization of read and unread messages across platforms has also been an on-again, off-again kind of feature. Sending links via DM has also been problematic, because Twitter’s spam and malware algorithm rejected most of them as hazardous unless they had been whitelisted.
While Twitter has been focusing on appealing to TV networks and advertisers as a “third screen” for major events, chat applications like WhatsApp — which was acquired by Facebook last year for a mind-boggling $22 billion — as well as Snapchat and Kik have been adding features and expanding in ways that bring them closer to duplicating something like the Twitter experience. Snapchat also rolled out a new feature on Tuesday called Discover, which will include content from media partners, including photos and video.
Snapchat gets competitive
Snapchat has also been having some success with a recently-launched feature it calls Snapchat Stories, which allows users to pin together photos, video clips and text related to a single event or experience. Twitter’s own Discover feature, meanwhile, has a somewhat troubled history — many users have criticized it in the past for being a virtual garbage heap of non-relevant tweets, and two of the people responsible for it abruptly left the company last year.
While Twitter’s new group DM feature may appeal to those who want private discussions so they can avoid the noise and potential for trolling that public Twitter involves, some users wonder whether the new feature could also remove much of the interesting conversation that occurs between users in what some have called “canoes” or public discussion threads. Although these threads can get hijacked by outsiders, they also expose potentially interesting content to new users, and can lead to more engagement by giving users someone new to follow on the platform.
One of my favorite things about twitter is watching the chatter that happens between people I follow and I'm afraid group DMs will end that.
— Michele (@inthefade) January 27, 2015
Twitter wants your video
In addition to the group DM feature, Twitter also launched its hosted video offering, which is designed to get users to upload their video clips directly to Twitter instead of posting links to clips on YouTube or Facebook or other platforms (Twitter has also been trying to get popular users to upload their images directly to Twitter instead of posting them to Instagram, because Instagram refuses to implement a feature that would allow Twitter to display images in-line rather than just showing a link).
Video is one of the most popular forms of content for platforms like Twitter because it drives engagement and also because it generates more revenue than other forms of media. Both YouTube and Facebook have been expanding their video features and services, and trying to lock more content creators into their platforms — although some of what YouTube has been doing has irritated independent artists like Zoe Keating, who wrote recently about her dislike of the platform’s new deal.
Twitter’s hosted video offering gives it a two-pronged — or what some might call disjointed — strategy when it comes to short video content: the other is its stand-alone video service Vine, which has become popular with younger users who follow the short clips created by musicians, comedians and other artists on the platform. Some Vine artists have developed YouTube-like followings, but as Gigaom’s Carmel De Amicis has pointed out in a post on the company’s strategy, Twitter doesn’t seem to have done as much to reach out to these creators or try to monetize their followings. Whether its new video feature encourages more of that remains to be seen.