x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Can Twitter turn politics into profit?

As Iran's political problems entered their second week, a new technology has become the medium that the world uses to watch events unfold.

Twitter, the online messaging service, has kept the world informed on events in Iran.
Twitter, the online messaging service, has kept the world informed on events in Iran.

The online messaging service has kept the world informed on events in Iran. But just being popular is not enough to make the free site a business success. David George-Cosh reports As Iran's political problems entered their second week, a new technology has become the medium that the world uses to search for up-to-the-second news on the events. Twitter, the micro-blogging online platform, whose popularity has snowballed since its debut two years ago, provides enough valuable insight for major media organisations to rely on it for original reporting, particularly once their own reporters had been forced out of the country.

The results have been mixed. While the few Iranian Twitter users who were able to bypass the country's internet firewall yielded enough information to spur their western counterparts to highlight their plight, the increase in "fake" or misleading accounts led some news organisations, such as CNN, who used material from Twitter, to caution their viewers that the messages they were reporting on were unverified.

It appears that users do not mind the poor signal-to-noise ratio they may receive through their Twitter feed. It may be one thing to receive Paris Hilton's "tweets" about her stay in Dubai filming her reality television show, it is another to watch Iran potentially change its political climate in real-time in the comfort of your home or on your mobile device. Regardless, Iran's volatile political climate has, in turn, become Twitter's finest hour.

However, while millions of users flock to the website to participate in the immediacy of these historic events, the company stands to lose millions of dollars without a clear, identifiable avenue of making money. What makes Twitter more attractive than search engines such as Google or news organisations such as the BBC is its ability to convey its communication platform in near-real time. One would think being limited to only 140 characters would be restraining, but in today's age of short-attention spans, coupled with innovative URL linking techniques, information now travels at a rate once unimaginable, given how Google began spidering the web only 10 years ago.

However, despite the promises of its co-proprietors, Evan Williams and Biz Stone, that Twitter is patiently preparing to launch premium, revenue-generating services later this year, the company seems to be content to let hundreds of other companies profit from their innovative offerings. Many multinational firms have already jumped on to the Twitter bandwagon with a high degree of success. Dell, the US computer maker, is a prime example.

This month, the company revealed through a blog post that it had already generated US$3 million (Dh11m) in sales after extending exclusive offers, discounts and other forms of savings to its 600,000 Twitter followers. The amount of compensation Twitter has received from Dell for using its service? Nothing. Other corporations, such as Apple, Starbucks, Adobe, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, as well as celebrity brands such as Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart, already have significant presence on the website, providing a key leveraging opportunity for Twitter.

And Twitter is paying attention. An increasingly likely revenue stream is engaging brands with a presence on Twitter to couple e-commerce with advice from other users, according to Todd Chaffee, a Twitter board observer and general partner at Institutional Venture Partners, a firm which has invested in the platform. "As people use Twitter to get trusted recommendations from friends and followers on what to buy, e-commerce navigation and payments will certainly play a role in Twitter monetisation," Mr Chaffee told The New York Times.

Twitter announced last March that it would make "Paid Pro" accounts with extra features, such as the ability to track and trace users, available to corporations later this year. But it may have already missed the opportunity, having rolled out verified accounts following the launch of a lawsuit by a US baseball manager who grew increasingly upset at an imposter posting offensive messages as himself.

Perhaps the genius behind Twitter's gratis website has already killed its potential as a cash cow. There are already countless websites and software programs which are free to tap into Twitter's readily accessible application programming interface, a data pipe that blasts user information at firehose-like speeds, some of which have already seen sales trickle in while others sit on the cusp of raking in their own profits.

For example, Howard Lindzon, a dotcom venture capitalist and hedge fund owner, has invested in TweetDeck, the most popular Twitter desktop program, and Stock-Twits, a stock-market information service for investors to use Twitter shortform code for real-time market information. The latter now counts more than 70,000 users, posting 10,000 messages each day. Although the site is supplemented with online advertising, Mr Lindzon plans to launch a number of premium services next month, and it does not appear that Twitter stands to profit from his entrepreneurship.

"Everything that's on the site today will remain free, but we'll add extra products and features that we'll be charging for," he recently told Investors Business Daily. Whether you use Twitter to follow Paris Hilton or Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran's defeated presidential candidate, it is certainly the fastest way to find out what is going on in the world. Along with its counterparts Facebook, YouTube and the emergence of blog networks such as the Huffington Post, Twitter is leading the progression of blurring the lines between how new and traditional media operate in today's world.

Maybe the brains at Twitter's California headquarters have already foreseen their own yellow brick road, one that clearly defines how they will turn their engaging website into a successful business venture. Or maybe they are just happy being at the forefront of some of the historic moments of our time while they figure out how to pay the bills.

dgeorgecosh@thenational.ae