Twitter Might Accept Advertising One Day. Or Not. But When And If It Does ...

Last Updated Sep 11, 2009 1:27 PM EDT

Nothing makes a Friday morning zip by quickly like reading the terms of service of a social media site, which is why I've spent quality time today reading Twitter's new terms of service. Not surprisingly, they are being examined like the Rosetta Stone by some of the Twitter obsessed. Among the more intriguing passages? The one that gives Twitter the right to put ads in front of its users. If the service decides it wants to. One day. Very far in the future. Or maybe not at all.

Now that the Pandora's Box has cracked open, it is leading to the inevitable musing about not only Twitter business models, but how advertising would change users' relationship to the service. First, here is what the terms of service say about advertising:

The Services may include advertisements, which may be targeted to the Content or information on the Services, queries made through the Services, or other information. The types and extent of advertising by Twitter on the Services are subject to change. In consideration for Twitter granting you access to and use of the Services, you agree that Twitter and its third party providers and partners may place such advertising on the Services or in connection with the display of Content or information from the Services whether submitted by you or others.
Twitter then offers this handy translation:

We're leaving the door open for exploration in this area but we don't have anything to announce.

On Mashable, this led into immediate discussion of what the reaction might be to an ad-supported Twitter. And it's clear both from the discussion, and others I've had with Twitter users, that the lowest common denominator idea of attaching ads to keywords, a la Google, doesn't necessarily cut it in Twitter's conversational environment. Most Twitter users I know are very protective of how their Twitter communities operate, and don't want them to be peppered with ads, or lurkers who latch onto brand names used in casual conversation. As one Mashable commenter put it:

I am an IT Recruiter. I don't want to post something about interviewing a retarded Unix guy, and get 5 followers that say click here to learn Unix.

Of course one problem Twitter will always face is users who don't know how to behave, who use it as a stalking platform, or a promotional platform, without regard for the give-and-take on Twitter that is so central to its utility, and appeal. Though the terms of service do prohibit spamming, they can't entirely guard against annoyances within the content itself. This morning I woke up to find that someone who had just joined Twitter and started following me had sent me, and roughly 50 other bloggers, a link to a commercial by the porn star Ron Jeremy. (Because I find this use of Twitter so offensive, I'm not including the link, and by offensive, I'm not even talking about the porn part.) Though I wouldn't be surprised if this person's actions fit within Twitter's definition of spam, more subtle versions of the same thing go on with increasing frequency.

Because of this, users are getting more sophisticated in how they control their Twitter accounts, and strangely, this degree of empowerment may lead to a particularly negative consumer reaction when it comes to introducing ads on Twitter. With the tweet spammer above, I did the logical thing, by blocking him, doing it almost as much to make a a statement as to free myself from his further tweets. My guess is that Twitter users will want the same degree of empowerment over how and whether ads appear in their Twitter environment. It's a reaction that Twitter better be prepared for.

Previous coverage of Twitter at BNET Media: