The Breaking News Threat to Twitter

"Why would anyone use this?" is what many said of Twitter  (NYSE: TWTR  ) in 2007. And, to be fair, many novel ways of using it had yet to be discovered. Updates on someone's breakfast or fight with their landlord seemed like the most trivial aspects of Facebook  (NASDAQ: FB  ) . But through the years, we've discovered that people do care about a celebrity's breakfast -- and while news of a landlord fight may not make Twitter valuable, news of broader civil unrest definitely does.

For example, during the Arab Spring, many turned to Twitter to not only broadcast news of events to the world, but communicate with one another as other traditional means of communication were cut. Now Twitter is usually the first place to find breaking news on a subject, from citizens and journalists alike.

News from a citizen about protests in Venezuela.

However, a new trend may take this value away from Twitter, pioneered by apps similar to Facebook's WhatsApp.

Pulling versus pushing
News services like the BBC have been trying out a new way to alert users to breaking news, with a much higher chance of being read than it would have if tweeted. In April, the BBC tested sending out news updates and receiving news tips from citizens before Indian elections through WhatsApp and Tencent's (NASDAQOTH: TCEHY  ) WeChat. Instead of a user sifting through tweets to find relevant news information, news gets sent out to a user's phone with an alert, similar to that of any text message. With Twitter, Katy Perry's breakfast decisions have equal priority with toppling governments, meaning important news items could be lost in the noise.

It's the difference between a passive, noisy service in which a user has to filter and pull information and an active, focused service in which the relevant information is pushed out to a user.

An opportunity to cross the moat
Many chat applications that are popular in Asia, like LINE, already have features that allow a user to subscribe to news updates, but such services have yet to catch on in America. As Twitter ages, and a user's account becomes cluttered with tweets that may have lost relevance, there's an opportunity for WhatsApp and others to offer a better service in breaking news delivery.

WhatsApp's latest directive from its new owners at Facebook is simply "grow," with no worries about revenue. While Twitter has deep pockets, with over $2 billion in cash and short-term investments, it's unlikely it can outspend Facebook's cash-generating power. If WhatsApp can supplant Twitter as a breaking news provider, then one of Twitter's strongest use cases disappears. Then, Twitter ends up more as a tabloid than a legitimate news outlet.

Or a stronger industry
On the other hand, if more news is delivered through chat apps, more people might read stories on their phones, and then turn to Twitter to find more sources and information. While news consumption is often more about stealing market share than growing market size, it is possible that a more engaged readership could benefit all services.

Twitter will need to be vigilant about remaining relevant either way. This could mean helping users clean up their streams of tweets, rolling out a Facebook-like algorithm to display only relevant tweets, or making high-priority tweets alert a user. It definitely means keeping the population of bots and spam in check -- last reported at 5% of Twitter's users.

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Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2014, at 4:43 PM, RobertoMurphy wrote:

    sorry, but this article is poorly thought out.

    When Lebron, Katie or any other superstar Tweets something, THAT IS THE NEWS. Thus, WeChat, LINE, WhatsApp and all the others are simply regurgitating the news that was created from the original Tweet. Duh!

    The news originates on Twitter and eventually gets watered down and blogged over by the other outlets you described.

    Do you really think Lebron is going to use LINE or some other Asian messaging app? Especially since the majority of his fans are in North America.

    Sorry, but your thesis doesn't hold water.

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2014, at 4:47 PM, RobertoMurphy wrote:

    Also forgot to mention. WhatsApp has not pioneered a single thing. Please give me the name of a single patent their 45 employee company has.

    The only thing they do is provide an app for SMS messaging. FYI, there's thousands of SMS apps on the market place. Nothing pioneering about it.

    Remember, content is king. Those who own it rule the day. As it stands currently, all the world's politicians, superstars and athletes use Twitter. Game, set and match for Twitter.

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2014, at 4:55 PM, RobertoMurphy wrote:

    Also, Twitter is NOT cluttering at all, if you simply follow the conversation via their hash tag filtering. Thus another thesis of yours falls apart.

    FYI, when the BBC sends out news via WhatsApp & WeChat, all those users will be bombarded with everything that the BBC sends out. Thus, the same dilemma applies, except its worse, as you have no say in what you receive. That 'news' will be in the form of a second hand account from a blogger or editor. Thus, the news they receive will be tainted and slanted according to the political leanings of the news agency. Twitter doesn't have that problem, since the news is coming from the mouths of the news makers.

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2014, at 4:58 PM, RobertoMurphy wrote:

    Also, Twitter is more of a real time news/event app. The experiment that the BBC did is not real time. Its limited by the editorial process of multiple human beings, based on second hand knowledge.

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2014, at 5:14 PM, pjmetz wrote:

    I agree with all your remarks about Twitter. It is very difficult to navigate and to manage all the tweets. I have had to create lists for people I want to follow so that I don't have a flood of tweets to sort through on my home page.

    Even so, I find it impossible to find anything among the flood of tweets in each list.

    Why Twitter did not implement a numbering scheme such as the ones used on message boards, where every message has a searchable number, I don't know.

    In any case, I wish I could get iMessages of news items from the BBC on subjects in which I am interested. I can read iMessages on my iPad and my iMac. I don't have an iPhone yet, but my husband does.

    It would be great to be able to filter tweets with interesting information from the trivial dreck that most tweets contain and to be not limited to 140 characters. Can one compose a thoughtful comment in 140 characters? It's almost impossible.

    I suppose 140 characters is great for a chit-chat site where people tweet "I had grape burritos for breakfast today!!" and other mind-numbing drivel. But, doesn't Twitter want to be more than that?

    Regards.

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2014, at 5:36 PM, pjmetz wrote:

    I think it's sad Roberto that you think Lebron or Katie is a source of news. They are a source of mindless gossip of which I have no interest. But you have every right to hang on their every word if they are so important to you.

    I would rather read comments from John McCain, Paul Johnson, or just about anybody who has something intelligent to say about world events or the important social issues of the day.

    I wouldn't want the BBC to send unsolicited news updates about subjects I didn't request, but I certainly would like the opportunity to receive information I wanted that contained links to in-depth articles, etc.

    Have fun feeding on the banal minutia of movie stars and sports figures. You have lots of company.

  • Report this Comment On June 20, 2014, at 12:36 PM, RobertoMurphy wrote:

    @metz,

    you ask and Twitter delivers...

    Here's McCains twitter account.

    https://twitter.com/SenJohnMcCain

    So when he says something, its coming directly from him, not Fox or CNN. Thus, his statements are not biased and misinterpreted by the media. You have just reinforced my view about Twitter. thanks!

    p.s.

    as for your blathering about who people should listen and follow... lighten up. The majority users of social media prefer to go on weekend benders, get drunk, stoned, go to concerts, movies, night clubs and sporting events. WE are not like you. We don't plan our vacation around the next political caucus.

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