Twitter Boasts of What It Can Do with Your Data

Twitter unveils initiatives aimed at making money from its users’ data and behavior.

The business model of social networks shapes what we can do with them—and what they can do to us and our data.

Social networks have two faces. One trumpets a heartwarming message about making the world a better place by connecting people. The other has a gimlet-eyed focus on extracting value from the data of those people. Today Twitter flaunted its mercenary side.

Jack Dorsey

The social network is under fire from investors worried that not enough people use its service to support a large business—each month over one billion more people use rival Facebook than use Twitter. At an event for software developers in San Francisco, recently returned CEO Jack Dorsey introduced several new initiatives aimed at making money from data on Twitter users and their activity. Partners such as Target and Hilton chipped in with endorsements of the value of information juiced from people who use the social network.

Dorsey opened today’s event with a paean to Twitter’s idealistic side. “Twitter stands for freedom of expression and we will not rest until that’s recognized as a universal human right,” he said. He cited the Black Lives Matter movement as an example of how “Twitter stands for speaking truth to power”—and then handed over to executives who introduced new products with a commercial focus.

One allows companies to pay for live analysis of activity relevant to their business on Twitter, and for data on the people involved. For example, an online store could get information about which of their products is being discussed, and the gender, language, location, and type of mobile device of the people talking about it.

“We’re the largest searchable archive of human thought, that’s public, that’s ever existed,” said Chris Moody, Twitter’s vice president for data strategy. The new services are updates to an existing product called Gnip, which previously only provided access to a live feed of all public tweets, as well as an archive of past tweets. Moody played videos of executives from Target and Hilton lauding the value of the Gnip service to understanding their customers and dealing with customer support issues. He also cited the consumer products and food giant Unilever as a customer.

Twitter also launched a new service that uses data on its users to help companies understand people using their mobile apps. Answers Audience Insights, as it is called, estimates the gender breakdown of people using an app, and reports on what topics they appear to be interested in, such as “pop music” and “comedy.”

The new service can also report on what categories of people are most likely to take certain actions in the app, for example make a purchase. The service is free, but—like other free tools Twitter offers to help companies build mobile apps in a bundle dubbed Fabric—it could help the social network’s bottom line by leading app makers toward its mobile ad service, MoPub. Twitter announced today that the platform will now sell video ads that appear in the stream of updates its users see.

The new efforts to extract value from Twitter users come a fortnight after Dorsey became CEO of Twitter for the second time, after the company’s board said it needed a new leader to navigate its business troubles. He helped create Twitter and was the company’s first CEO in 2007, but stepped down late in 2008 and went on to found payments company Square (see “The New Money”), where he remains CEO while also leading Twitter.

While the company’s announcements today may help mollify some critics of the company’s business, they didn’t tackle another major challenge: in its second-quarter earnings release, Twitter said that 316 million people use the service each month, more than one billion less than Facebook, which reports 1.5 billion monthly active users. It made $49 million in profit during the period on $502 million in revenue. Twitter’s stock price has slid because growth in its user base appears to be slowing, making some investors wonder if the company’s data and ad services can be rich enough to make a strong business.

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