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What Twitter Can Learn from Cable TV

What Twitter Can Learn from Cable TV

Late last year, in a change now largely—if grudgingly—accepted by its most frequent users, Twitter became more like Facebook. Though the social media platform’s transition from “favorites” (symbolized by a gold star) to “likes” (symbolized by a crimson heart) was largely cosmetic, the reaction to the switch by many core users suggested that the company’s emerging strategy to expand its audience was not without risk. Now, as Re/Code reports that Twitter is considering expanding the current 140-character limit to 10,000 characters, the question going forward remains the same. Is Twitter’s quest for growth going to displace its core fan base?

The details of the new character count, referred to within the company as “Beyond 140,” are still in development, as design specifics, concerns over spam, and the exact length of tweets continue to be mulled over by insiders. But as Re/Code points out, abandoning the 140-character limit—as well as the reverse chronological timeline, also under consideration—have been features of Twitter, long described as “micro-blogging” platform, from the beginning. If brevity is no longer the soul of Twit(ter), one has to wonder if its most ardent users—who are, after all, the ones who fill our feeds each day—will at some point decide to flee.

Such a moment may never arrive, but the company’s shift toward the vernacular of Facebook and Instagram—”to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use… especially for newcomers,” as Twitter product manager Akarshan Kumar explained in November—reminds me of the long, pitched battle between broadcasting and “narrowcasting,” the general and the niche. There are lessons to be learned from cable TV, including this one: cultivating a small, committed audience can work.

The economics of television and digital media are not exactly analogous—though the gap has grown ever slimmer in recent years—and Twitter has to answer to impatient shareholders after its most recent earnings report showed that user growth has slowed to a trickle. Yet, as a once-reluctant user who now lives on Twitter, not only to follow the day’s news but to engage with colleagues, peers, and readers, I’m not convinced that aping its more popular brethren is Twitter’s sole path to success. Though minor, new Twitter’s replacement of “favorites” with “likes” smacks of thin imitation, the “Allegiance” (NBC) to old Twitter’s “The Americans” (FX): in trying to appeal to everybody, the platform may end up appealing to nobody, and that would be a shame.

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Rather than chase the (possibly delusional) dream of joining Facebook and Instagram in the broadcast-style big leagues, what if Twitter accepted its role as a cable-style network, with a modest—though by no means minuscule—core of loyal users? Even before the dawn of the Internet age, after all, there was space for only a handful of behemoths, often propped up by multimedia conglomerates, and the fragmentation of the media landscape in the past decade has accelerated beyond all expectations. In other words, there’s no guarantee that Twitter will breakthrough to a wider populace even if it pursues Facebook and Instagram users with abandon.

What Twitter has done, since its 2006 founding, is make itself more or less indispensable to a subset of social users with a unique and often deeply enjoyable experience. Much as AMC, FX, and other cable networks became trusted purveyors of must-see series like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Louie,” and “Fargo” by actively challenging the broadcast model, Twitter could leverage its desirable demographic to turn a profit by improving its current features rather than replacing them with generic claptrap. (Committing resources to tackling the pervasive problem of abuse would be a start.) Hell, I can see the Twitter of this imagined future even switching to a subscription model, not unlike HBO or Netflix, in which users pay a monthly fee in exchange for a certain assurance of quality control.

In the end, I suppose the lesson for Twitter may be even older than the battle between broadcast and cable networks: don’t bite the hand that feeds you. At a certain point—as NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX have begun to learn—when everything looks the same, at least some of your audience will flee to what’s different, and as Casey Newton of The Verge wrote of the change from “favorites” to “likes,” “[T]he favorite was unique to Twitter, and part of what makes the service distinctive… In this, the fav was a microcosm of Twitter itself: a bit of work up front, in exchange for a social experience as rich and surprising as anything in the world.”   

We increasingly live in a world of microcosms, in which 3 million weekly viewers or 320 million active users can, under the right circumstances, be defined as success, and Twitter would do well to remember that as it chases its competitors by copying them. On the Internet as on television, standing out from the pack still counts.

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