THE BLOG

Twitter's IPO: Pay For it, But Don't Expect Equality

10/16/2013 05:42 EDT | Updated 03/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Twitter is one of several giants of enterprise cashing in on the fact that social networks have wormed their ways into the habits of users. Non-profits, brands, agencies, causes, etc. are funnelling their campaigns through social media as a way to target specific demographics on a platform where they are ready and waiting -- this generation's television set. And, just like advertising in past decades, an oligarchy is quickly forming.

With more companies going public, Twitter is the latest in a string of companies putting users at the whim of hasty policy changes and a rapid monetization policy put in place for IPO. Ultimately, any message intended to reach the masses through social media is quickly becoming a purchase. And, while many industries are no strangers to bought audiences, there is a strong departure from social media as a platform where anybody could compete for earned influence on a virtual equal playing field.

The argument could be made that Twitter, as a company, has the right to become commercialized. I agree. There is no such thing as a free lunch for users or advertisers, even if the platform in question did offer everyone, at one point, an equal voice. However, the crack down on competition and dependant apps -- unless they pay up -- is a sign things are changing in a company that used to encourage developers to use their API. And the results? While ad revenue is up 247 per cent year-over-year, and earnings nearly tripled to 317 million, somehow the company managed to lose 79 million in 2012.

The IPO filing comes as no surprise in the wake of the API policing in recent months. Take the case of Thunderclap. The site was created to have thousands of people donate their content-producing ability. Kind of like a kick-starter for a cause. Thunderclap sends tweets at the same time when a campaign finishes to create influence and get a topic trending. The problem? One day after launch, Twitter shut it down. Should Thunderclap have the right to campaign for people's tweets and earn them through good marketing? One might say yes. Twitter would say no.

With an eye on monetization, free flowing information on Twitter's platform has very quickly turned from an open terrain of discussion into a corporate product. You want to use it? Pay for it. While there's technically nothing wrong with this idea -- Twitter is a company and they should make money -- the fact that they're still alluding to the impression that all users have an equal opportunity in achieving influence is just inaccurate. And I don't think they're doing it by accident. Therefore, Twitter is a two-sided coin: social media to anyone who wants to intake information, and businessman to anyone who would like to send any out.

And Twitter's not the only social network clamping down on earned media. Facebook has been consistently limiting the amount of people who see an organization's posts since before their ad platform came out. Now, with Facebook ads, you can see through your admin panel just how little of your own followers -- people whose likes you worked hard for -- actually see your content. Would you like more people to see your content even after you've earned their attention? Pay for it. And Google? Well Google's promise to 'do no evil' looks like it's being outweighed by a promise to shareholders to 'give no freebies'. In the past month, the company has converted its keyword tool to a keyword planner and has encrypted keywords in analytics. If you want to know what someone searched in order to come to your site and become your customer, tough luck.

There will always be defenders of these monetization tactics. Perhaps they still believe these companies are what they bought into a decade ago -- a bunch of guys in a garage in the Valley. Or maybe they just don't understand. One commenter on Google's move to encrypt keywords has said, "This move by Google will force SEO marketers to focus on business results rather than keywords -- which is where the focus should be anyway." That's about the equivalent of saying, "This hardship is good for you, and it builds character." What this pundit seemed to fail to understand is that keywords, for marketers or anyone who measures any success online, are not the goal. Keywords are not the Holy Grail or epitome of winning. Keywords are a means to an end, and have become a staple analytic of measuring earned success. To encrypt them is to hold people ransom, unless they subscribe to a new service one may only assume is in the works.

As a marketer, I'm not innocent of trying to use content and social influence to push certain ideas. However, social network purveyors are aggressively monetizing platforms, and turning companies into products in a way that is new to the online world. In today's online climate of influence oligarchy, apps like Thunderclap are ineffective. It no longer matters if you've earned your clout the good, old-fashioned way. You cannot exist if you depend wholly on another entity that is temperamental and has policies changing as often as the weather -- well you can, but you need to have a sizeable budget.

Which brings me back to the fact that social influence has become a barren landscape with only a few main players policing the industry. If taking your campaign to social media is a necessary evil in marketing your cause, then Facebook, Twitter and Google have made it so that if you want social influence, you must buy it. You cannot earn it. And that's troubling in an industry where the good agencies could once pride themselves on being able to come up with campaigns worthy of earning attention on merit, not on cash.