Social media is on the brink of another fundamental shift. Over the past five years—counting roughly from when Instagram was founded—photos have overtaken text as the dominant mode of communication on the major social platforms, and mobile apps have surpassed websites. Now comes the next era. Like it or not, the future of social media is mobile video.
Facebook, the largest of the social networks, has already made its intentions clear. Threatened by Snapchat and other video-centric upstarts, it has spent the past two years encouraging people to create and post videos, starting with recorded videos and now pushing into live streams and 360-degree video. A Facebook executive said last week that she believes the news feed in five years will be all mobile, and “probably all video.” That may be hyperbole, but there’s no evidence that she intended it as such. Already the company is seeing “a year-on-year decline of text,” she added.
Twitter, for its part, has been gradually moving away from the 140-character text-based update—too gradually, no doubt, for the taste of investors. The common assumption has been that, when and if Twitter does remake itself, it will do so via a Facebook-style algorithm that decides which tweets you see in your feed. But while Twitter has toyed in a limited way with this sort of automated personalization, CEO Jack Dorsey recently clarified the company’s focus on “live,” which he has managed to turn into a noun. Semantics aside, it’s a smart move, because the real-time feel of Twitter’s chronological timeline is what sets it apart.
Instead, a series of moves announced this week suggests that Twitter’s real makeover won’t involve the order in which it shows us content, but that content’s very nature. It’s the same change Facebook is beginning to undergo: the move from text and still images to video, and live video in particular. It's a transition for which Twitter has long been preparing, beginning with its acquisition of Vine in 2012 and continuing with its launch of Periscope in 2015. This week, it shifted into a higher gear.
First, Twitter announced on Monday that it’s buying Magic Pony, which is neither a children’s show nor the street name for an illicit drug, but a London-based machine-learning startup. Yes, machine learning is fast becoming a business cliché, which might be why commentators like Fortune’s Mathew Ingram were quick to dismiss the acquisition. But in Magic Pony’s case, the term machine learning holds a specific meaning. And contrary to Ingram’s take, it has little to do with “curating content.”
Rather, the startup, which counts 11 Ph.D.’s among its ranks, has published papers and filed patents that center on the application of neural networks to video encoding. In English, that means they’ve developed fancy new ways to make sure videos look good on your phone, even if you don’t have a great data connection. The “magic” here is that they do this by compressing videos to relatively poor quality in transmission, then running software on your phone to reconstruct a higher-quality picture. Clever, right?
Twitter may have paid in the neighborhood of $150 million for the company, according to TechCrunch’s sources, which sounds like sort of a lot for 11 Ph.D.’s and a product that sounds strikingly similar to that of Silicon Valley’s Pied Piper. But remember that Twitter also recently signed a $450 million-per-year deal with the NFL to stream live football games. Streaming live games to your phone has historically been a pretty dicey proposition, not to mention an expensive one. If Magic Pony’s technology significantly improves the mobile viewing experience while trimming the data load, it could pay dividends. In the best-case scenario, Twitter could establish itself as a place to watch not only the NFL, but also all sorts of other live video.
Of course, it will face tough competition from Facebook, which has its own big plans for live video and far more resources with which to pursue them. To that end, Twitter launched a set of new features and tweaks on Tuesday, just a day after the Magic Pony announcement.
First, it will allow users to tweet videos as long as 2 minutes 20 seconds, almost five times the current 30-second limit. (Yes, that works out to 140 seconds.) As BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz points out, the likely effect will be not only to encourage people to create original videos to Twitter, but to allow them to post full videos to Twitter that were created elsewhere, rather than linking out to them.
Vines, previously capped at six seconds, will now in some cases include a “Watch More” button, which will lead to a longer video—again, up to 140 seconds. This will effectively turn the looping six-second Vine into a trailer for the full clip.
In a related and equally important move, Twitter is launching a new, dedicated video-watching page in its mobile apps. Tap any video in your timeline, and the app will switch to a full-screen viewing mode that recommends a series of related videos to watch after you finish the first one. As with Facebook’s “Suggested Videos” feature, the rationale is that if you’re willing to watch one video, there’s a good chance you’d be willing to watch more.
That sounds obvious, but the more interesting flipside is a recognition that a lot of social media users still don’t want to watch videos in their feeds. Maybe they’re worried about data overages. Maybe they don’t have headphones on. Maybe they just prefer to take in information at a glance, via text or still image. Facebook, Twitter, and others have to be careful not to alienate these users in the pursuit of video views.
I’ve argued in the past that live video on social media could be a fad, since most people are unlikely to embrace the idea of self-broadcasting. Yet it’s increasingly clear that the big social media companies aren’t going to let some users’ aversion to the format stand in the way of the social-media video revolution.
The motivation is twofold. First, a significant and growing segment of social media users really do like watching videos on their phones, even if they don’t necessarily want to create them. Second, and perhaps more importantly, mobile video is where the ad money is going. And where the ad money goes, content inexorably follows. Snapchat now reportedly boasts 7 billion video views a day, approaching Facebook’s numbers despite a much smaller user base. Even Tumblr is getting into live video, it announced on Tuesday.
Twitter will not insert commercials into its video-viewing page for now, as Facebook does. But that’s probably just a matter of time. Meanwhile, it’s already showing ads before some Twitter videos via its Amplify program, and it announced Tuesday that it will begin offering pre-roll ads on some Vine videos as well. Vine creators will keep 70 percent of the revenue, while Twitter will take 30.
Finally, Twitter on Tuesday announced a new companion app called Engage. Aimed primarily at celebrities and video creators, it will filter out mentions and replies to your tweets from the riffraff, in favor of interactions with people whose accounts are Twitter-verified or who have large followings of their own. (Twitter already offers some filtering options in its main app, but on Engage they’ll be the default.) It also includes an analytics dashboard from which to assess your fans’ adoration of various tweets and videos. And, notably, it will feature a third tab dedicated to encouraging you to post new videos.
Is Engage elitist? No doubt, although in a nod to its democratic roots, Twitter will make the app available to anyone who wants it. It turns out that elitism is a tradeoff social media companies are happy to make in the name of mobile video growth. (Facebook, for its part, has been paying handpicked partners to produce live videos, just in case making them go viral via its News Feed algorithm wasn’t enough incentive.) The average user may not have the time or inclination to post videos or broadcast themselves, let alone the know-how to do it well. But getting them to watch high-quality videos produced by professionals should be an easier sell.
Engage has been glossed by tech blogs as a new tool for filtering the noise from your timeline and mentions. But I think it’s also a Trojan horse. The filtering features are meant to lure celebrities and social-media pros into an app that practically begs them to post videos, or even live videos, rather than text updates. Even the section that lets you analyze engagement post-by-post is divided into three sections: “videos,” “photos + gifs,” and “other.”
For better or worse, that appears to be the future of social media, in a nutshell: videos, photos, gifs, and … other. And if you don’t like it, you’re always free to tweet your displeasure—especially now that all the important people can easily tune you out.