It's 2014 and Twitter isn't a profitable company—but did you see how many retweets Ellen got last night? The Hollywood selfie seems like a giant business coup for ad-reliant Twitter, but it says more about the power of a century-old technology than anything else.
Twitter is still making up its attempt at revenue as it goes along, but it's still based largely on the assumption that the likes of Pepsi and Pringles will pay to force you to read tweets about Pepsi and Pringles. Television is the next frontier for this advertising logic—Twitter tells advertisers that it will "target" TV viewers with more ads, as explained below:
This all hinges on everyone—you, Twitter, advertisers, actors, agencies, networks—slowly conflating TV viewing and tweeting as one idle, LCD-jammed couch activity. We tweet when we watch the tube, just like we Instagram while we eat. At least that's the idea. Before Twitter went public, Forbe's Jeff Bercovici explained one real life example of Twitter squeezing dollars from television:
The purest expression of Twitter's let's-profit-together philosophy: Amplify, a program used by more than 35 networks and other broadcasting partners to distribute short video clips. Each clip is preceded by a short ad, which Twitter and the partner sell jointly.
Here's how it works: Say Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson scores a spectacular touchdown during a Thursday night game in the NFL Network. The league, an Amplify partner, tweets out a clip to its 5.1 million followers with a six-second commercial for Pepsi and pays to have it promoted. The league and Twitter both make money — they've already booked more than $10 million in commitments — and the NFL Network gets the benefit of added viewership from users who see the tweet and opt to tune in.
So when millions (plural!) of Oscar viewers all retweet together at once, it looks like the company's plan is working out perfectly—people are reliably tweet-watching in huge numbers, and their behavior can be orchestrated. Click, click more, my babies. But the leap from popularity to profitability is only implied. Twitter scored an Oscar night PR victory by proving it can get millions of people using it free service in a coordinated manner, but how this translates into a valuable tool for advertisers is still fuzzy.
More importantly, this victory wasn't really Twitter's. The "biggest retweet in history" is a contrived stunt to begin with, but it owes everything to the people we watched on our big screens, not our pocket screens. Ellen Degeneres—the very famous host of an extremely famous award show—commanded television viewers to click the same button. She stood next to a group of some of the most beautiful, beloved, rich, and otherwise attention-laden celebrities, whose gorgeous group image she asked us all to propagate. We were already tuned in—we already agreed to care about these people. We were Ellen's, not Twitter's, putty in the hands of ABC and not Jack Dorsey. Really, convincing millions of Oscar-watchers to spread that selfie was about as much of an accomplishment as getting the stars to accept a statuette.
If Twitter could command our behavior without the aid of mega-celebs and orgiastic Hollywood buzz would've been the real feat. For now it's just Ellen's stage assistant.