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Twitter Doesn’t Want to Be Facebook, It Wants to Be Fox

The social network is all network — forget social

Mary Valery/Getty Images/Ringer illustrations
Mary Valery/Getty Images/Ringer illustrations

I don’t have cable. That’s not a brag — when I had cable, I started watching way too much NCIS. I was a total DiNozzo about it (that’s an NCIS joke). Cord-cutting suits me fine, in general, with one exception: live TV. Whenever basketball, political debates, or awards shows air, I scrounge for my roommate’s friend’s stepmom’s Time Warner password like a true dirtbag. That’s why I find Twitter’s most recent midlife-crisis makeover so interesting — it’s trying to put live TV on the internet, no subscriptions necessary.

Twitter recently secured streaming deals with Wimbledon, the NBA, the NHL, MLB, the NFL, and CBS News. It will stream 10 Thursday-night NFL games this season. It also streamed the Democratic and Republican national conventions. The only way the company could get more serious about livestreaming would be if it locked Hank Williams Jr. in a basement until he recorded an ARE YOU READY FOR SOME TWITTER version of the football song.

Fast Company ran a story this week on Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s push for livestreamed events, and this section jumped out at me (emphasis mine):

I’d guess Dorsey wants the NFL to figure as heavily into Twitter’s resurrection as it does in Fox Sports’ and ESPN’s creation stories. Twitter already switched its app category from “social networking” to “news” earlier this year, and now it’s doing something more than rearranging labels. Twitter doesn’t want to be the world’s newspaper, like Facebook. It wants to be the world’s basic cable network.

Twitter and Facebook have played a game of copycat chicken for years, stealing each other’s features and ideas. Facebook introduced a feed like Twitter; Twitter redesigned to look more like Facebook; Facebook rolled out verified accounts like Twitter. Facebook “won” — it is far more popular and profitable. When it comes to people, Facebook has easily bested Twitter.

But there’s another race the two platforms are running, and that’s for live video. And this is where Twitter is being smarter. As someone who uses these two sites simply to procrastinate, I’m far more excited by Twitter’s livestreaming plan than by Facebook’s push to make Facebook Live happen. Facebook Live is boring 95 percent of the time, and violent the rest; Twitter is getting live events that are enjoyable to watch. Facebook is attempting to reinvent what sort of video we consume, and to be a new type of TV programming; Twitter is trying to give us a new, easier way to watch the things we already like and want to watch, without trying to sell us on some sort of “new, social” video content.

Twitter will never be Facebook; sometimes it can barely be Twitter. Despite its faults, though, Twitter is still the best social network for keeping up with real-time events, so leaning into its strength by gunning for live event video is smart. Twitter has struggled to make its social network easier for beginners to understand, and it has mostly failed. If it can provide a reliable, dead-simple way to watch sports online, it’ll open itself up to a wide, new fan base even if Twitter never figures out how to get those fans to actually tweet.

Twitter will stream its first NFL game this Thursday, Jets vs. Bills. Instead of trawling for some sketchy, virus-riddled illegal stream, now I can pull up the site I usually look at to watch celebrities say mean shit to each other in real time.

My hopes for Twitter’s live TV experiment are about as high as they are for the upcoming film Bridget Jones’s Baby. The premise is wacky and the desperation is palpable, but I want it to work!

Plus, if Twitter gives up the Facebook dream and focuses on being ESPN for cord cutters, it might be too busy to introduce more useless goofball updates.