Twitter’s expanded tweets are a double-edged sword

As we reported on Wednesday, Twitter is in the process of rolling out what it calls “expanded tweets,” a new feature on both the web and mobile version that shows additional content for certain publishers and services, such as the New York Times and ABC News. In some ways, this could be seen as a lifeline for media companies, as my GigaOM colleague David Meyer argues, since it theoretically exposes their content to more potential readers — but at the same time, Twitter is clearly trying to use that content to keep more people inside its apps and on its site. As with Facebook and Google News, the new feature could be both a benefit for media companies and potential competition in the battle for users’ attention.
The feature, which is only available to some Twitter users right now, is actually an extension of something the company first launched with the redesign of its website in 2010 — the new version included what Twitter called a “media pane,” which slid out sideways when a user clicked on a tweet and showed a variety of embedded multimedia content, including photos from Instagram, videos from YouTube and links to songs on Rdio and other music services. The new expanded-tweets feature adds support for photos and video, but seems mostly aimed at traditional media content such as stories from the New York Times, Washington Post and ABC News.

The new features are only available to certain partners

Eagle-eyed Twitter watcher and veteran developer Dave Winer noticed the new expansion feature before the announcement and mentioned it on his blog. It appears to be powered by something called Twitter Cards, which allows developers to add tags to content pages that allow excerpts and other features to be pulled out and shown in the expansion section — similar to the way that Facebook’s “open graph” tags allow it to do this when a link is added to a Facebook page or status update.

But more than just the technical aspect of the new feature caught Winer’s eye. As someone who has already repeatedly warned media companies about Twitter’s growing status as a competitor for the attention of readers — and also raised flags about the proprietary nature of its platform — Winer also drew attention to the fact that Twitter’s expansion offering is only available to certain partners. The company’s head developer Ryan Sarver told Winer that anyone can apply by filling out an application, but presumably Twitter then gets to decide who has access to the new features and who doesn’t.
Twitter hasn’t provided any details about what kind of arrangement it has with the companies whose content is featured, so it’s unclear whether it’s just a quid pro quo — that is, Twitter gets to show more content and the media company gets the benefit (theoretically) of more traffic to its site — or whether Twitter is charging a fee for this added value. Or should media companies be asking for payment because their content is being used to attract users? As media consultant Terry Heaton put it in a blog post comparing Twitter’s offer to the spider and the fly:

We may be able to better attract eyeballs to our content to encourage those click-throughs, but it’s also arming Twitter with a clever way to build its own media empire at our expense.

Is Twitter doing media companies a favor, or competing with them?

The new expanded-content idea certainly has the potential to become a monetization strategy for Twitter, as John Gruber of Daring Fireball noted. Among other things, Twitter could charge media companies for access to the new feature, or it could ask for a cut of any revenue from song downloads or other monetization that occurs via links in the expansion or media pane. Or, it could offer the enhanced content option to advertisers who want to promote a movie or song by using it — which would make a nice companion to its “promoted tweets” and “promoted trends” and other advertising offerings.

What makes this kind of offering a double-edged sword, and a further reason why traditional media might want to be cautious about their relationship with Twitter, is that adding expanded content is clearly the company’s way of adding more value to its website and mobile experience so that users will spend more time there (and also possibly a way of cutting out third-party apps, since they won’t get the new features). And it is using content from media companies like the New York Times to do so — content that in some cases might convince people to click, but in some cases might not.
One of the mainstream media’s favorite criticisms about Google News has been that the excerpts the company includes — which News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch and others have described as theft of their content — are often enough for most readers who just want a summary of what is happening in the world, and therefore rob media websites of traffic. If someone can watch a video or read a summary inside Twitter expansion or a  media pane, will they click through to the original or not? And will companies like the New York Times be satisfied to get those readers even if they don’t click through?
One of Dave Winer’s points about the new feature is that it creates an uneven playing field, since Twitter will only be providing the enhanced-content option to a select group of providers — but his other point, I think, is that even those companies who choose to take advantage of the option are striking a kind of Faustian bargain, just as they have with Facebook’s “social sharing” apps. Such a deal may increase the distribution of your content, but who ultimately gets the benefit? If you are a content creator, are you working for yourself, or are you working for Twitter? It’s possible to do both, but you need to know that going in.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Umberto Salvagnin