Will Twitter Get Aggressive With Ads?

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Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME

Twitter and Facebook. Facebook and Twitter. You may love, or loathe, one app more than the other. Or you may love – or loathe – both equally. Here’s what’s indisputable: they are the two social media titans of our age.

Yet, one of these social networks – Facebook – will generate $3.5 billion in revenue this year, according to one forecast. Twitter, despite its 300 million registered users, is expected to pull in just $100 million in revenue.

That could soon change.

According to a report in the Financial Times, Twitter is planning to introduce advertisements onto its main interface. Right now, Twitter ads are not too invasive. For those who don’t spend much time providing 140-character updates on their kickass workouts and other banalities, here’s how it currently works: companies can now buy “promoted” tweets that show up on the right-hand side of a user’s screen. For example, on my screen right now, Twitter is giving me three recommendations for “Who to Follow:” San Diego Padres relief pitcher Heath Bell (as a sports tweeter, athletes show up a lot in my account), someone named @feeg0666, and Auntie Anne’s pretzels.

The Auntie Anne’s recommendation is labeled as “Promoted,” so I know that this is essentially a display advertisement. Since I don’t always glance over at the “Who to Follow,” screen, I usually don’t see the ads. Given Twitter’s relatively paltry revenues, I’m clearly not alone.

Under Twitter’s plan, these “promoted” tweets would move from the sideline into a user’s Timeline, which gathers all the messages that a Twitter user’s followers – friends, celebrities, media organizations – send out. Twitter eyeballs spend most of their time scrolling these Timelines. The Timeline could be the largest untapped revenue source of the electronic age.

So why has it taken Twitter so long to ramp up its advertising? The company clearly doesn’t want to alienate its users with overbearing commercialism. But at this point, Twitter is such a huge part of people’s digital bloodstreams, it will take much more than a few ads to push them away. Timeline-scrolling is a rushed exercise: your eyes quickly dart up and down the screen, as you seek out the information that most interests you. As long as there’s no overbearing number of ads on your Timeline, you may barely notice that “Promoted” tweet.

And if you do … look, whatever you think of Twitter’s usefulness, you must admit that it’s a pretty amazing app. It’s a service where ideas, information – and yes, idiotic observations – can gather in one place, in real-time. If Twitter users are going to be turned off, en masse, because the company wants to monetize its innovation, maybe that’s not Twitter’s problem.

Maybe it’s ours.

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