Given all the hooplah over Twitter trying transform itself into a truly advertising supported business you’d be forgiven for thinking that advertising was the most evil source of revenue imaginable. But what’s wrong with it? The Television broadcasting business is still doing well and TV, at least network and much of cable TV, has always been supported by advertising. Yet I’ve never heard anybody complaining that they were the “product” that a network was selling to its sponsor “customers”. The television business has continued to thrive with advertising at its center without much controversy. Why the outrage when Twitter wants to follow the same model?
There’s a few reasons why television advertising seems so less odious to us than ads online:
We’re used to it
In the USA television was ad supported almost from day one. From the The Colgate Comedy Hour to American Idol corporate sponsors have paid for programming in return for the eyeballs of viewers. If you went to a cinema and your movie were interrupted every ten minutes for an ad it would drive you crazy but on television it somehow seems okay. It’s not the only way we see television - public tv was always a part of the mix and DVRs now allow us to watch almost ad free - but television commercials seem natural even when we don’t like them. Conversely, pretty much all content on the web was free for a long time and many sites (especially those of newspapers and magazines) have only added paywalls more recently.
TV Ads are better
Commercials on TV are not all bad. Occasionally they are amusing, entertaining or informative. Sometimes they can even be said to have artistic merit. As television has matured the medium of the commercial has improved as well and advertisers have made a real effort to make us want to pay attention to their spots. Online ads on the other hand are sometimes useful but rarely interesting or entertaining. There have been exceptions (the nytimes ads for apple spring to mind) but given that Internet ads are usually miscrotargeted and automated there’s little room to craft something of quality.
We have a different relationship to the Internet than we do to television. We feel that television is a medium essentially owned and operated by the broadcasters but that the Internet belongs to all of us. Which leads me to the next point.
Television, radio and print are different than the web in that they provide us with unique content. In exchange for that content we’re willing to consume ads as a sort of tax. But the web features content by all of us, especially when we’re talking about Twitter in which so many of the users are also the content creators. We might be willing to pay a fixed price for the use of the “pipes” that carry that content (the business model of app.net) but advertising served up everywhere all the time seems like too steep a price to pay when the medium isn’t creating the message. It’s as if we were forced to listen to advertisements every time we picked up the phone to talk to somebody. The Internet as a whole, and Twitter in particular, is a telecommunications technology and advertising just seems wrong in that context. Twitter is trying to remake itself as a media company but it’s not clear that the shoe fits.
I don’t think there’s anything ethically wrong with Twitter trying to use advertising as a way to generate revenue. The vast majority of its users probably won’t be puy out out by the consequences, such as fewer third party clients and less integration with other services. The big question is whether advertising is a business model that can sustain Twitter as an important platform for years to come. I wouldn’t bet on it.
Full Disclosure: I have a Twitter account but have essentially stopped using the service since I purchased an account on app.net. More on that in another post.