Twitter Doesn't Give a Damn Who You AreS

Twitter had a meeting yesterday to talk about how big it was. But what really came across was that while Facebook and Google+ value your identity, Twitter doesn't care who you are, as long as you've got something to say.

Google Facebook and Twitter now all have similar products. But Twitter CEO Dick Costolo (somewhat inadvertently) made it clear yesterday that while all three have social networking features and make money from ads, they are in fundamentally different businesses.

At a very basic level, Google+ and Facebook are in the identity delivery business, and Twitter is in the information delivery business. That's a powerful distinction. It reflects a fundamentally different conception of what's more valuable: information or identity. It also gets at who is more valuable, advertisers or users.

Google and Facebook's social products are committed to a real names policy. Both can serve someone up to a network of peers or advertisers with some degree of certainty about identity.

Twitter takes exactly the opposite route towards building a network. You can be anonymous, or use a pseudonym, or even impersonate someone else (as long as you indicate that it's a parody). It will still connect you to others on its network, and allow you to both serve and receive data. And that's working well, for everybody.

Costolo unloaded some enormous numbers.Twitter has more than 100 million active users—that is a user who logs on more than once a month—and more than 50 million who log in daily. 40 percent of its active users don't tweet at all. They just log in to read. (In common parlance, they're lurking.) The ones who do tweet are sending more than 230 million tweets per day. It's big now. Very big!

What's more its about to make a bundle of money by rolling out promoted tweets (Twitter's term for in-timeline ads) to everyone, everywhere, regardless of whether or not they follow the company that's running the promotion. But something that was true from its very first days is still true today: it won't sell you, the user, to make a buck. Twitter understands that the things people say are often more valuable than exactly who they are.

Twitter's stated mission is to "instantly connect people everywhere to what's most meaningful." It's connecting people with information, not each other. "What's most meaningful" does not have to be a person. It can be a person, but it doesn't have to be. Nor does it have to remain the same thing. It could be a baseball game today, an Apple event next week, or an election next year. A revolution, news of a natural disaster, or simply updates from your child who lives three states away. It is essentially becoming a connecting tissue; an instant and variable information delivery mechanism.

That leaves room for identities to be fluid. Like Shakespeare's rose, Twitter cares less about your name than it does your words and actions. You may use a fake name, but you still smell pretty sweet.

To be clear, this isn't an altruistic thing. It's just business. "We're not wedded to pseudonyms," explained Costolo, "we're wedded to people being able to use the service as they see fit."

Sometimes that means using it anonymously. In some situations (think: revolutions in the mid-east, dissent in China, and of course releases by LulzSec and Anonymous) the flow of information is completely dependent on not verifying a user's identity.

So while Twitter will serve advertisers (it has to) instead of delivering identity or demographic information, says Costolo, it will deliver information-driven engagement. Twitter's going to target ads based on your interests—who you follow, and what you tweet about. It will look at the data you consume and produce. And because Twitter's ads appear in the timeline itself (hence the annoying term "promoted tweets") and as a part of that information flow, people actually seem to click on them.

This lets Twitter bill advertisers based on actions, rather than impressions. Rather than charging based on how many times an ad is shown, it will charge when someone actually does something interactive with the ad. When they click on it and follow through, or reply to it, or retweet it. And it means it can deliver value to advertisers without as much reliance on demographics. It can still sell contextual ads, without having to sell you.

And it seems to work. According to Costolo a recent ad campaign by Virgin America gave that company its fifth largest sale day ever. More impressive, a VW ad campaign had an engagement rate of more than 50 percent. In simple terms, more people acted on the ad than did not.

In short, Twitter doesn't care who you are, it's still going to serve you an ad. And oddly, that may be the most effective tactic of all.

Original photo by Shutterstock/Cucule


You can keep up with Mat Honan, the author of this post, on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.