Since its founding, Twitter has always lost money—more than $2 billion since 2011 alone. Oddly enough, Twitter now faces the same problem as newsrooms did back in the day when RSS first arrived on the scene. Once content is no longer exclusive and anyone can grab it, it becomes hard to monetize. Twitter has an additional challenge: Its value is the data its network generates, rather than the platform itself. From that perspective, Twitter the business might not be viable long-term.
But what if we think of Twitter instead as a distribution network that could serve a higher calling? Then it presents an interesting opportunity for both shareholders and news organizations alike.
News organizations could form a consortium and buy Twitter, turning it into a wire service for the 21st century. The consortium would be incentivized to clean up the muck, offer functional utility and still engender the thrill and excitement of smack-talking awards shows and football games.
We already have an example to follow. The Washington Post recently launched extensions for Chrome and Firefox that fact check President Trump’s tweets. At the moment, it’s a manual (and heroic) effort by Philip Bump, but with time and testing it could be automated.
Once the extension is installed, Trump’s tweets display a little section with vetted and verified facts, context and a link to more articles. Every participating news organization could offer up its content to the fact checking pool, and consumers could pay a little extra for the ability to choose which newsroom provided the fact checks. Bump told me that around 1,200 people have installed it on Firefox and 31,000 on Chrome. Personally, I will no longer look at a Trump tweet without it.
The consortium could help news organizations rebuild trust while still sending traffic to various websites. Rather than simply offering a blue verification badge to a handful of individual users, it could introduce badges for credible news sources. I would advocate a spectrum of colors, to indicate left-leaning, right-leaning and middle-ground content. Rather than the maddening “here’s what you missed” feature, which distorts a user’s Twitter timeline, the consortium could help surface verified news content higher in the feed.
Don’t worry, I’m not advocating that the consortium take away your ability—or that of a brand or elected official or YouTube phenom—to tweet. Bots should be concerned, though, because in order to bring up the quality of the network—which would undoubtedly help those monthly active users (MAUs) to rise—the consortium should absolutely make an effort to weed out fake accounts, those who post the personal details of others (otherwise known as “doxxing”) and those who target others with hate and harassment.
This suggestion isn’t tantamount to censorship. I believe in the right to free speech, even when I disagree with what’s being said. The consortium could enact thresholds, allowing users to set the level for what they wanted to see: all the tweets, PG-13 tweets, or those for a general audience.
So, how would this bring in enough revenue so the consortium could be maintained and further developed into the future?
Once the network of users is healthy again, the firehose becomes more relevant to third-party partners, everyone from brands to universities to other app developers. Anonymized data can be parsed, packaged and sold.
Once that healthy network starts valuing the links being shared—understanding where the content is coming from, and that it can be trusted—users might be enticed into spending more time with news organizations. Theoretically, that could mean greater amounts of time spent on site, which would yield better numbers for advertisers.
Once the consortium has our attention again, it can build added utility into the system. One way to do that would be to acquire Nuzzel, an app that curates a personalized newsletter of the top news stories your friends are sharing on social media.
I’m a devoted Nuzzel user, and I’ve created dozens of Twitter lists on very granular subjects that represent a wide-range of worldviews. When a critical mass of accounts has shared a story, it rises to the top of my feed in the app. And guess what? I can select and read a text-only version of the story, bypassing a news site’s paywall. Configuring Nuzzel this way has taken a bit of work on my part, but I’m unbelievably informed because of it. The system is so indispensable to me now that I’d happily pay for everyone’s work—Twitter, Nuzzel, and news organizations—if only they’d ask.
If all of this were to happen, here’s how the Twitter experience could be transformed.
On the afternoon of January 24, soon after President Trump specifically instructed the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services not to communicate with the press or public via any outlet, South Dakota’s Badlands National Park launched a rogue tweetstorm about climate change. Within an hour, those tweets were shared tens of thousands of times, along with an outpouring of adulation from journalists, politicians, celebrities and everyday people.
Not long after they were posted, however, the @BadlandsNPS’s defiant tweets were deleted, without any context or explanation.
That night, in another corner of Twitter, President Trump was goading his 22 million followers into another asinine debate about his popularity: “Congratulations to @FoxNews for being number one in inauguration ratings. They were many times higher than FAKE NEWS @CNN – public is smart!” And just minutes after that tweet, Trump threatened Chicago with “the Feds!” if the city didn’t fix “the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016).”
Journalists with jobs at traditional news orgs were rage tweeting about the whole mess—climate, crowd science and authoritarianism—from their personal accounts, fueling complaints that their reporting is neither fair nor balanced.
What happened on January 24 highlights the challenge facing both Twitter and news organizations, which now find themselves in a deeply damaged, codependent relationship, where neither can succeed. Salacious tweets beget arguing, and public rants have a habit of taking over headlines. Eventually, we wind up with news that offer tweets—or reports of tweets—but no context. All that’s left is a horrific ‘he-said, she-said’ storm, exacerbating the growing divide between left and right and the mistrust of our venerated news organizations.
What might January 24 have looked like if a news consortium owned Twitter?
On the consortium’s app, to which I subscribe for a monthly fee, I get a notification that a bunch of accounts I follow are tweeting about climate change. I click on the URL, which takes me to my local newspaper—it’s a story with verified facts about melting glaciers and rising sea levels. I click on the next story from that same newspaper—it’s from a conservative columnist, who’s written an evidence-based editorial promoting the use of fossil fuels. I don’t happen to agree with him, but I’m happy I’ve read the story because it’s brought me closer to those whose opinions differ from my own. I don’t mind that the consortium is bundling my data and selling it to others. And I certainly don’t miss scrolling through all the fake news, the troll tantrums, tweetstorms, and sussing out bots from humans.
Twitter will never appease shareholders on its current trajectory, which is why the company has been discussing a sale with behemoths like Google and Microsoft. Our Tweeter-In-Chief can move markets with just one post, yet Twitter itself trades well below its IPO price of $26. Its revenue has slowed to a halt, its MAUs have grown only 3 percent annually, it recently announced plans to cut 9 percent of its workforce, and it hasn’t figured out a functional profit model.
Turning Twitter into a 21st-century wire service would offer a welcome return to normalcy, to nuance—and to news.