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Facebook and Twitter Drop 'Social,' Become Commercial Networks

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As social sites grow, they're starting to look like, and partner with, old-school media.

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The future is television. So we're told by Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Twitter, as the social media giants battle it out over TV advertising dollars. In May, Twitter announced a service called Amplify, which allows television broadcasters to post video content. Facebook commissioned a study from Nielsen (NYSE:NLSN) to show that it, too, can help motion picture marketers reach new audiences. And in the last few months, the social network has been tinkering with TV-style video advertisements of its own.

That's just for starters. Twitter also introduced TV ad targeting, a way for marketers to track what people are saying about televised ad campaigns. Facebook responded by partnering with Trendrr to prove that it's really the better platform for listening in on tele-chatter. For years, live Twitter feeds have popped up on prime-time television programs, and Facebook is now playing catch-up here as well. The company rolled out hashtags in June, and last week released a set of tools intended to put user discussion on-air.

Long story short, the big social networks are partnering with television. Or maybe they're competing with it – the math isn't clear. "I think we're at a stage where the conversation is really TV plus Facebook," Carolyn Everson, VP of Global Marketing at Facebook told the Financial Times.Twitter exec Adam Bain disagrees; "We have often thought about Twitter plus TV, but now we are thinking about Twitter times TV."

The equation is changing for users, as well. Social media has become more of a scripted performance in recent years, in which money does a lot of the talking. The search for revenue has given us promoted trends and news feed advertisements, which prioritize paid content over user posts. Marketers believe that a good ad can divert attention, maybe even kick start conversation – a troubling proposition. If they're right, then we're commercializing what used to be a relatively neutral forum; and if they're wrong, then monetization may prove to be something of a disappointment. Either way, someone's a sucker.

As it's being squeezed by paid ads, user content also has to contend with a rising noise level. As Facebook and Twitter grow, so too do friends lists. In 2009, the average Twitterer had 126 followers. Last year, that number had risen to 208. The average Facebook user now has 303 friends, according to Arbitron and Edison Research, up from 262 a year ago. At face value, this sounds like a happy sort of inflation; we're all getting more popular. What it really means, though, is that anything we post faces more competition than it used to. By the same token, we're less likely to see a status update from any given person, like a parent or a best friend. Overwhelmed by posts from increasingly distant acquaintances, and even complete strangers, news feeds have fallen victim to the average: baby pictures, Web memes, and those superstars of social media, the drama queens who friend their way to a captive audience.

Social media is in danger of becoming something like reality television – a glimpse into the lives of people we find interesting, but have little personal connection with. Facebook and Twitter have tried to tackle the noise problem with user categories, without much success. Facebook allows you to group friends into sub-networks, but that's a chore when you have hundreds of them, and it's only effective if they're doing it, too; conversation requires that both people be heard. Twitter gives preference to "verified" users with large numbers of followers, but this approach is guaranteed to give extra weight to the same people we already see ad nauseam on TV, like sports stars and Hollywood luminaries.

When it comes down to it, Facebook and Twitter are old wine in new bottles; they are television networks dabbling in a new medium. Like older generations of broadcasters, they've pursued a larger audience at all costs – and yet we know, intuitively, that human relationships are scarce, and that liking is not so scalable as "liking." They've introduced advertising in increasingly loud formats – and yet we understand, instinctively, that having a flashing neon billboard in the dining room will probably affect the dinner conversation. The business model is at odds with the product, and so the product is changing.

The contrapuntal would be a smaller network like Path, which limits the size of friend lists. Founder Dave Morin has pledged never to introduce ads, a promise David Karp famously made, and broke, regarding Tumblr. So far Morin has kept his word, building a freemium model that charges users for extra features. Path has refused to sell out, and consequently, it's not making much money. The network now has 20 million users, and shows signs of real and growing popularity, but a poor revenue stream has thrown roadblocks in front attempts to raise additional capital.

To paraphrase Peter Theil, we wanted social media, and what we're getting is commercial networks. It's hard to fault Facebook or Twitter for trying to meet the high expectations coming out of Silicon Valley and Wall Street; this is basically what we asked for. So grab the popcorn and get settled. This show's just getting starting.

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