The suitors fell one by one. Disney. Alphabet. Salesforce.
There is an obvious solution, though, and it would create a perfect new product. Facebook should buy Twitter, and roll it up with its Live video offering.
Facebook’s transformation from a free social-networking website for desktop web browsers into an ecosystem of mobile apps is one of the most remarkable business and technology success stories of the last century. And yet, Facebook wants more. Facebook is a machine for capturing attention, but it has not managed to capture some key categories of the attention market, most notably “Live.”
There is a reason that it wants the Live market. Live is a specific category of media that relies on the frisson of knowing that you’re being shown things as they happen, in real time. The immediacy of live events can generate a more focused kind of attention than the kind of continuous partial attention that most people give to their social media timelines. And as a result, Facebook Live video streams generate more engagement than other kinds of posts, including non-Live video. Facebook believes its engagement data, so it has begun to push hard for more Live video.
“Live is just one part of our overall video effort, but we think it has a lot of potential,” Mark Zuckerberg said earlier this year. “Friends go Live because it’s unfiltered and personal. Actors and news anchors go Live because they can reach bigger audiences in some cases than they can on even their own shows.”
Live has also become the go-to platform for streaming police brutality.
Live video has taken off among media companies (which are, in some cases, paid by Facebook to make content) and some individuals. Some feel that this is the next great bucket of audience attention that Facebook is opening up. But the truth is that Facebook Live, as a real-time video platform, doesn’t work very well. It’s hard to find compelling stuff. Doing Live video is really, really hard.
More significantly, the idea of the Facebook timeline militates against “Liveness” and real-time storytelling. The whole point of the algorithm is to show you the best stuff, and it’s rare that a Live video actually meets that threshold. Live is not what the News Feed does.
Facebook’s News Feed is about relevance, showing you the post you want to see out of all the thousands that you might be shown. And it’s unbelievably successful at that. But the software that underpins News Feed often falls down when it comes to providing real-time updates. So, Facebook is a place where your friend’s post about making guacamole for the Warriors game gets shown to you in the fourth quarter.
That’s okay! In fact, it’s kind of the point. The fundamental product of the News Feed is about what is happening, not when it’s happening. And Facebook has years worth of data showing that users prefer their feeds ranked in order of relevance, rather than chronologically.
But there is a place where Live video makes a ton of sense. A place that has built a whole business around being a real-time news and conversation engine for the world. That place is Twitter. Where do NBA players post updates? Twitter. Where do celebrities feud, and politicians battle over policy positions? Twitter. Where do people discuss television shows and sports games as they’re being broadcast live? Twitter.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made the point that Twitter is still the best at real-time media earlier this year during a rough earnings call:
Twitter has always been the best place to see what’s happening immediately, to see what’s happening instantly, and to bring people together around a particular shared experience. And as we talked about last time we think the easiest way to get what Twitter is, is really to show a live event; show people the great accounts who are providing insight that you can’t find anywhere else, you can’t find in your address book but you actually meet on Twitter through that experience, to connect them through a Follow and also to encourage them in a conversation.
He’s right: The people making the culture are on Twitter, making and talking about that culture in real-time.
Imagine, then, a Facebook-owned product called “Now.” You pair the Twitter timeline, showing you the real-time global text conversation, based on a list of people you follow, with the best of Live video from around the world. This would be the best real-time media product imaginable, especially with Facebook’s corporate muscle behind it.
For Facebook, a Twitter purchase would join a long line of strategic acquisitions made to enhance the company’s core capabilities. When Facebook bought Instagram, it didn’t just want the app’s users—Instagram brought deep, native knowledge of the mobile game into the Facebook house, where it could be used to enhance Facebook’s primary app. Same with WhatsApp, which was purchased, in part, to augment Facebook’s knowledge about the messaging world.
Twitter would bring deep experience with the real-time world to Facebook. And as a nice bonus, Twitter would bring in a squadron of elite power users from across the celebrity and media landscape, who have gotten used to reaching their fans on Twitter.
For hardcore Twitter users, a Facebook acquisition would be something to celebrate. In the past several years, as Twitter has bounced from strategy to strategy in an attempt to chase user growth and justify its value to investors, the core Twitter experience has gotten a little schizophrenic—Twitter Moments appearing one day, hearts replacing stars the next, autoplaying Periscope video suddenly appearing in feeds, axing Vine, weird decisions about reply threads, and so on. (As our Felix Salmon pointed out last year, Twitter’s push for mass market growth “comes at the expense of some of the characteristics which cause its most active users…to love and value it.”)
But if Facebook bought it, Twitter wouldn’t have to change at all—it would simply become the backbone of Facebook’s Live offerings, and fill a niche that Facebook has had trouble building on its own. For the mainstream Facebook user, there would be Live Video. For people who wanted in on the real-time text conversation, there’d be the timeline formerly known as Twitter. Rather than trying to become something it is not, Twitter could double down on the core real-time components of its experience, while attaching itself to the most powerful mobile ad infrastructure in the world.
And besides, what other choice does Twitter have, aside from finding a Bezos?