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Twitter, the NFL, and the return of the monoculture

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Centralized media is back from the dead

The internet was supposed to destroy mass media.

I’m paraphrasing here, but it was an idea that was kicking around a lot through the last two decades, from people like Howard Rheingold, Douglas Rushkoff, and even Jeff Jarvis. Instead of one camera broadcasting to millions of people, the internet will let all those millions of people make media for each other, ditching corporate monoculture for a new kind of networked society.

Now, that future is here — and we’re using it to watch football.

Twitter is now in the mass media business

This morning, Twitter announced a new deal with the NFL that gives it streaming rights to 10 Thursday Night Football games in the coming season. It’s a big, expensive play for Twitter, one the company hopes will pay off with new users and new buzz. But beyond the business logic, the move signals a new idea of what networks like Twitter are for. With today’s deal, Twitter is now in the mass media business.

In some ways, this kind of event-centered conversation is what Twitter has always been about. The app first launched at SXSW in 2006, giving anyone present a new way to talk about the event. Using Twitter today means navigating dozens of similarly event-based conversations. There’s Sports Twitter, Debate Twitter, Apple Keynote Twitter, Disaster Twitter, and perhaps most infamous, Awards Show Twitter. That’s become one of the platform’s main strengths over Facebook: it’s a way to follow what people are saying about a specific thing at a specific time, something the service tried to lean into with Moments. Facebook has broader reach, but none of that specificity, which gives Twitter a unique appeal for groups like the NFL.

Football Twitter already has its own unique energy, encouraging people to tweet things like "Gronk!" with no context or explanation. Now it will have the footage to support that energy. That seems to have been a large part what made the deal attractive to the NFL. "Twitter is where live events unfold," Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement accompanying the deal. "There is a massive amount of NFL-related conversation happening on Twitter during our games." At the same time, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has made it clear that live events are central to the company’s future. "Twitter is live," he said in a recent earnings call. "Live commentary, live conversations, and live connections."

"Twitter is where live events unfold."

That power isn’t unique to Twitter. Snapchat Live Stories pull off a similar trick with ephemeral video, taking you directly to festivals, events, and awards shows. This year’s Oscars was the first story that could be watched from the web, expanding its reach even further. Live-streaming apps like Periscope aim at a similar feeling, bringing you live video from wherever is most interesting at a given time. At this point, the feeling of being in a digital crowd around a popular event is one of the things social media does best. Twitter has the lead on that feeling, but they’re far from the only people chasing it.

Algorithms differ, but the subjects of each service tend to look more or less the same. They’re all broadly popular events, the kind of thing you can imagine being broadcast on network television. Even if you aren’t watching the World Cup or the Grammys on TV, you might be interested in the conversation around it, or a few well-placed highlights. The result looks a lot like TV, radio and other mass media— and why wouldn’t it? When you’re blasting out a Live Story or a Moment to millions of users at once, it would be foolish to waste it on niche tastes.

Ten years from now, will Instagram look more like YouTube or Twitter Moments?

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The Oscars are fun, and everyone loves a good Song of the Summer. But it’s very different from the initial promise of web culture, laid out by people like Rushkoff and Rheingold. The theory was that radio and television had been focused around central hubs because technology demanded it. Radio towers sent out a single signal to millions of people at once. They were also expensive, demanding large companies to support the necessary infrastructure. As we switch to smarter, cheaper distribution mechanisms, media organizations would shrink in turn, eventually getting as small as a single guy in a basement.

Versions of that dream still exist. YouTube is one example, with millions of single-person blogs exploring ever-more specific topics and formats. You could make a strong case for SoundCloud too. But while some platforms are still driving towards decentralization, Twitter and many others are headed in the opposite direction, toward the same centralized events that dominated the media 80 years ago. Still others are caught awkwardly in the middle. When Instagramers blow up over the service’s new algorithm, that’s part of what’s feeding the anxiety. Ten years from now, will Instagram look more like YouTube or Twitter Moments? There was a time when I would have confidently predicted that decentralization would win out. Now, it’s far less clear.

It’s hard to be entirely impartial. I like web culture, and I want it to win. I tend to shy away from network TV shows and Top 40 music. I like Weird Twitter, and probably won’t watch the Thursday night streams. That’s not the only way to live but it happens to be what I’m into, and for a long time it drove me away from TV and FM radio and towards the web. Now, those battle lines are completely scrambled. Pop is getting weirder. TV shows are pitching to smaller and smaller audiences, and many of them aren’t even on TV. Snapchat is partnering with the Oscars, and Twitter with the NFL. Even for a true believer, it’s hard to know which side you’re on.