Don’t like television? Then you’re not going to like the future of Twitter very much

According to a number of anonymous reports, Twitter is in the process of buying Bluefin Labs, an analytics company that specializes in broadcast media — an acquisition that would be its largest ever. Although the news hasn’t been confirmed by either party, a Bluefin deal fits the trajectory that Twitter has been on for some time now: namely, a focus on television as a key partner for the real-time information network. But will this choice divert Twitter from a much larger opportunity and/or drive away users? (Update: Twitter has confirmed the acquisition)
As Eliza Kern described in her post on the rumors, Bluefin’s technology allows broadcasters — and more importantly, brands — to see where and when their content is being discussed on social networks and elsewhere on the web. The company was founded by MIT scientist Deb Roy, who began by collecting every sound his young son made during a 3-year period and then used algorithms to detect patterns in that data (Bluefin’s CEO will be speaking at our paidContent Live conference in New York on April 17).

Television is where the money is

Twitter’s decision to concentrate on TV-related features and partnerships isn’t that surprising. As we’ve described before, the company has been coming under increasing pressure to generate meaningful amounts of revenue in order to justify a market value that is estimated to be in the $10 billion range, based on recent sales of its shares on the private market. And while Twitter has been building up its “promoted tweets” and other advertising-related features, the most obvious and lucrative source of revenue is still television and other video-related content.
Twitter’s moves in this direction started with partnerships for specific events like the Academy Awards, where it helped broadcasters filter and aggregate tweets about the content, and then expanded with deals related to things like NASCAR and the Summer Olympics, where the company created customized portals or hubs and had its own staff of editors curating content related to the event. After the Olympics, the head of Twitter’s media partnerships bragged about how much traffic the service drove to NBC’s programming, and it’s clear the company wants more of those kinds of relationships.
Even the launch of Vine, the six-second video app that Twitter recently acquired, can be seen as another extension of this focus: while most people have been using the app to share short clips of their cats and other ephemera, there have already been advertisers and brands taking advantage of the new format — including The Gap — and it’s easy to see how those clips could become mini-advertisements.
It’s not just a desire for revenue that has driven Twitter into the arms of television, however. As Eliza noted in a post about the use of Twitter during the Super Bowl, the fact that the network works as a “second screen” for such events has been obvious for some time — and it makes sense for Twitter to capitalize on that in whatever ways it can. And as Peter Kafka pointed out at All Things Digital, adding analytics to its video-related partnerships via Bluefin would allow Twitter to make a better case for why brands should care (it also has a partnership with Nielsen).

Twitter should be about much more than just TV

So what’s wrong with Twitter getting into bed with NBC and other broadcasters, or becoming a handmaiden to traditional television? A couple of potential pitfalls showed themselves during the Olympics: one was the fact that Twitter’s content hub was unavailable to non-U.S. users because of geographic restrictions that its partner NBC was subject to. By now, we’ve grown used to Twitter content being unrestricted — except in special cases such as Germany’s request to remove Nazi tweets, when changes have to be made for legal reasons. A geo-gated Twitter just seems wrong.
The other incident that occurred during the Olympics was Twitter’s decision to shut down a journalist’s account after he criticized an executive at NBC and posted what the company said was a private email address. Twitter later admitted that this was mis-handled, but it raised the question of whose interests the company would be likely to protect if push came to shove: will the needs of broadcast partners take precedence over the needs of users? In some ways, they already have.
For me at least, getting into bed with television broadcasters and defining success as driving traffic to their programs is not as interesting a use of a global, real-time information platform as something like the “networked journalism” we saw during the Arab Spring and other events. Obviously, Twitter can still do things to help encourage that kind of activity as well, but if it doesn’t generate the same kind of revenue as a TV deal, how much attention will it get? Not much.
I am as much a fan of discussing shows like the Super Bowl on Twitter as anyone, but I don’t really need another way to find out about the latest NBC sitcom or reality show. I would much rather Twitter focused on filtering and curating the broader universe of discussion around important issues than boosting the viewership numbers of The Biggest Loser. Unfortunately, that’s where the money is.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Dmitris K