Elon Musk started by tweeting out – if not demanding – Twitter feature requests/changes in a truly remarkable moment for technology and corporate governance. This led to a rejected board seat and this morning’s acquisition attempt, complete with “Plan B” if/when the board rejects. Decrees-by-tweet and hostile takeovers cannot be a sustainable way to run a product, and these events play into my long-held belief that Google should have bought Twitter years ago. It would have certainly been a more orthodox turn of events compared to what’s going to play out very publicly over the coming weeks.
Google, a social company
From Orkut to Buzz and of course Google+, Google proper has an incredibly bad track record of being a company that gets social media. Even if an acquired Twitter continued on the exact same path/history as it has up to now, Google would be a big and relevant player in the space.
On the flip side, Google did not really lose anything by having its various social attempts fail. It might have been more relevant with young people, but those same youths are still using Search, seeing ads, signing up for Gmail, and getting familiar with Chromebooks.
However, I think Twitter would have been a good fit as Google would be another steward – for better or worse – of a quasi-public service that should certainly exist in one form or another. There is such a low barrier and speed to writing – as well as consuming – 280 characters of text compared to taking pictures or uploading videos. People tweeting in mass is a powerful indicator of what’s trending and provides the pulse of what a specific population is discussing. The internet should always have a centralized “public space” to converse in.
To me, that societal need is on the same level as a search engine, well-maintained email (Gmail), free productivity suite (Docs/Sheets/Slides), video calling (Meet), data backup (Drive and Photos), web browser (Chrome) and (relatively) open operating systems (Android and Chromium).
Besides the high-minded ideal of keeping something like Twitter continuously operating, there are a number of synergies with Google products that make a great deal of sense.
For Google, what’s missing from the above list of essential day-to-day services is of course messaging. In the 2000s and early 2010s, Google owned that with Google Talk and to a smaller extent Hangouts.
What if instead of pursuing Allo or RCS Chat, Google — around 2016 — had Twitter direct messages from the broader acquisition, and decided to make DMs its consumer messaging app.
Twitter has long neglected its private chatting experience. In fact, it just added the ability to search the contents of messages. There was once talk of DMs being split out into a separate Twitter app, but that never became realized even as demand for it has grown.
Google could have pursued that option and modernized it much earlier. One immediate benefit would be how usernames are leveraged as a public identity system compared to more sensitive phone numbers and email addresses. Another is having a service that’s objectively more recognizable than Allo and cross-platform, unlike Messages and RCS today.
Another possible social integration could have been with Google Photos, which of course was born out of Google+. One of the great things about Plus was that it was a great place for people to publicly share their pictures. An acquisition that came after the end of G+ could have led Google to bring back that public experience with Twitter, and the end result could have been a viable image-focused Instagram competitor.
One of the things Google+ got right on day one was the concept of more private sharing with Circles. It feels like Instagram and Twitter have only very recently started exploring how to allow for more partitioned experiences on their networks without just locking down your account entirely.
When Larry Page made an acquisition pitch to Jack Dorsey in 2011, improving Search was said to be the big sell. That honestly makes a great deal of sense given how Search is continually the thing Google sets out to improve. In the early 2010s, an acquisition would have made Google Search an even more powerful tool for understanding what’s popular. That data is already gained from queries, but what people are tweeting is is equally definitive. The implications for ads are also obvious. That said, Google eventually signed a deal, which is still ongoing, in 2015 to have tweets appear in Search results instantly.
As a side note on lowercase search, looking up tweets on Twitter today is a pretty mediocre experience. It’s fine, but not as smart (keywords only versus understanding sentiment) as Google Search, nor does it extend to what’s in images.
Where Google has found success in social is of course YouTube. It was very much allowed to mature and grow separate from the core company, and that was for the best. The most obvious integration between Twitter and YouTube is another distribution channel for sharing videos.
On the flip side, it’s not hard to imagine that uploading videos in tweets would have eventually just used YouTube in any acquisition, and the same could be said with live streaming. YouTube’s network would have certainly aided in making the latter much more discoverable.
YouTube today is officially “a Google company” that retains its own internal culture. Given that Twitter is so consumer-focused, I think it would have ultimately joined Google under a similar model rather than as an Alphabet company post-2015. It makes possible all the integrations with existing services as Google proper increasingly serves as the consumer brand.
While many of these integrations could still work in the modern era, a Google acquisition of Twitter today is just out of the question for regulatory (antitrust) reasons. The time for this has clearly passed. Such a deal would have made huge waves in the past, but I believe it would ultimately have been the more stable route than whatever is about to happen next.
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