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From 140 chars to auto-play videos: has Twitter lost it?

Social network experiments with auto-playing ads, a far cry from its low-bandwidth origins

Facebook has a lot to answer for. Having seen how auto-play videos have proved a hit with advertisers on its rival social network, Twitter has reportedly decided to follow suit.

The company is currently engaged in a trial with some US users that sees “promoted videos” play automatically on iOS devices. As with Facebook, the video is muted, the sound only switching on if customers click to view the video full-screen.

“We’re running a small test on a few variations on the video playback experience,” a Twitter spokesman told Ad Age, who broke the story. Some variants of the experiment see only the first six seconds of the video playing automatically, while others are “treated” to the whole video. 

Auto-play is an easy way for social networks to build viewing figures for advertisers. With the vast majority of users simply ignoring promoted content, clickthrough rates for Twitter’s regular video ads are vanishingly small. Facebook, on the other hand, has seen video playback grow to three billion views per day since it switched on auto-play (Facebook regards a video as “viewed” when it has been watched for longer than three seconds.) 

The shift to auto-playing videos will be another sign of Twitter shifting far away from its roots. One of the reasons Twitter achieved such widespread popularity in the first place was that it originally limited users to 140-character text-only posts, meaning it was an incredibly low bandwidth service that could run flawlessly on the slowest of data connections.

Auto-play videos, however, will significantly increase the bandwidth demands of an app that has already become bloated beyond recognition. Twitter used around 140MB of data over the past month on our test Android smartphone, whilst the Twitter app for iOS takes up 365MB of storage space on our iPad Air. It has been known to balloon upwards of 500MB, as the app attempts to cache images to boost performance.  

Not only does that make Twitter a bandwidth hog that could push people over their data cap, it also limits the app’s potential to be used in emergency scenarios where bandwidth is scarce. Twitter became infamous as the social media channel of choice for those reporting from conflict zones, often because it could operate on very limited bandwidth. That may not be the case for much longer. 


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