Twitter Is Buying Its Way Out of Being Twitter

Illustration for article titled Twitter Is Buying Its Way Out of Being Twitter
Photo: Olivier Douliery (Getty Images)

Twitter’s track record of eyebrow-raising product decisions continues, as this week, Twitter engineering executive Michael Montano announced the company would be acquiring the 4-year-old “social podcasting” app Breaker in an attempt to flesh out its Clubhouse-esque Spaces product.

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If you have no idea what social podcasting is, well, join the club. As the homepage for Breaker’s soon-to-be-shuttered app explains, it seems to be a social platform... based around podcasting; users can “like” and “comment” on a given podcast episode, or follow fellow Breaker-ers to see the shows they’re listening to. If people wanted to chat with other podcast fans to complain about the latest episode of This American Life, a DM function let them do so.

What’s clear is that this platform, for all its perks, might not have been the most popular.

For example, I’m a huge fan of the true-crime show Last Podcast on the Left, and so are more than 30,000 people following the show’s Facebook page, and the 85,000-plus people on the show’s namesake subreddit. The show’s popularity garnered it an exclusive Spotify deal at the start of this year. This is the show that has a rabid fanbase that loves talking about every episode, just apparently not on Breaker, at least according to the zero comments its hundreds of episodes have racked up on the app. Other popular titles barely rack up likes in the double digits.

In other words, Breaker wasn’t the most popular platform. So what does Twitter want to do with it?

First, it’s worth noting here that it’s unclear what kind of tech the Breaker team will be bringing to the table. Breaker co-founder Leah Culver tweeted out that she’s “excited to help create the future of audio conversations.” And fellow co-founder Erik Berlin said in a blog post that his team is “inspired to go even further in re-imagining how we communicate with each other,” in ways that might not be so podcast-centric. Specifically, Montano implied that the three-person team behind Breaker would be joining Twitter’s team to help develop Spaces, its audio chatroom product that feels a bit like Clubhouse-lite.

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Breaker might be Twitter’s first acquisition in 2021, but it’s only the latest in a string of bite-sized tech platforms that Twitter’s been quietly scooping up in its quest to become... something less like Twitter. At the start of 2020, for example, it acquired a smallish company called Chroma Labs that, until that point, had mostly worked on whipping up different designs of templates for people’s Stories on Instagram and Snapchat. It was kind of a head-scratcher at the time, but considering how Twitter rolled out its Stories-esque Fleet system a few months after news of the acquisition went live, it’s safe to assume that’s where the Chroma team ended up.

In December, Twitter acquired another little-known company called Squad, which was a platform that tried emulating the sort of social-screen-sharing that you’d see on something like Discord. Not long before that, it acquired the mobile adtech firm CrossInstall. And just like Breaker, financial details—or really, any details—about the deal wasn’t disclosed to the public.

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There’s a lot we don’t know here, but what we do know is that Twitter’s advertising systems are awful. Like really awful. Not awful enough to eliminate ad revenue entirely, but awful enough to make the company start to sweat a little bit throughout 2020. And when that awful ad interface gets tacked onto a platform that not many people really use when compared to, say, Facebook or even LinkedIn, it makes sense that major brands would put their major dollars in either of those buckets instead, leaving Twitter with ads promoting some obvious scams and at least one carp.

Twitter’s attempts at emulating other platforms could be an attempt at grabbing some of the ad dollars that are flowing their way. Looking at the CrossInstall acquisition, in particular, others have pointed out that this is a company best known for wooing mobile gaming companies that plunk ads for their games onto, say, Snapchat. These sorts of companies tend to run what’s known as “direct response” ads that try to elicit an immediate response—like a click—from someone scrolling a site. Except people generally don’t click on Twitter’s ads as much as scroll past them while feeling exasperated about how shitty these ads tend to be.

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Way back in 2017, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told advertisers that it was “doubling down” on its quest to grab at these direct budgets, seemingly without much success in the years that followed. Meanwhile, advertisers were throwing their direct dollars into Stories on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. In that light, it’s not a surprise that Twitter is trying out the Stories format on its own platform.

And considering how Spotify is ramping up its ad platform to make bank off of targeting ads—specifically direct-response ads—at podcast listeners like myself, maybe the Breaker acquisition is a sign that Twitter might try to gun for those budgets as well. Maybe not through a Twitter-branded podcasting platform (ugh), but by bringing podcasters onto Spaces instead.

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So if you had to sum up the implicit rationale of Twitter’s recent acquisitions, you could say that while people love podcasts, screensharing, and watching people’s Stories, nobody really likes Twitter. And it looks like Twitter’s finally catching on.

I cover the business of data for Gizmodo. Send your worst tips to swodinsky@gizmodo.com.

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