Refresh, refresh, refresh… Twitter is monetizing your compulsiveness

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Every time you refresh your tweets, Twitter banks a tenth of a penny.

The company, which will issue its first quarterly earnings report next week, considers “timeline views” the best measure of how engaged its users are. It counts another view whenever* someone opens Twitter or requests to see new tweets. That happened more than 158 billion times in the third quarter of last year, or 685 timeline views for each of its 231 million active users.

Here are timeline views charted alongside the advertising revenue Twitter generates amid all that refreshing:

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Advertisers like the idea that Twitter users are so engaged that they constantly click or swipe for more content. And each refresh is another opportunity for Twitter to serve up a sponsored tweet, which it has been doing more often lately.

Yesterday the company announced a new plan for when mobile users reload their feeds: If there are no fresh tweets to show—a common problem for new and obsessive users alike—Twitter will display other content like suggested accounts to follow or notifications that people are talking about a TV show. It could charge for that placement in the future, according to a source.

In other words, Twitter is monetizing the compulsive refresh. It’s a behavior nearly as old as the World Wide Web: refreshing to see if there’s anything new, if the page has been updated. Then refreshing again. And again…

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Newer web standards have diminished the need to refresh browsers—email, for instance, now arrives unsolicited—but the habit thrives on phones. Many mobile apps, including Twitter’s, load new information when first opened but then require users to manually refresh for updates. That helps conserve battery strength and data bandwidth. It’s also simply pleasurable, if also sometime soul-sapping, to swipe one’s finger down the glass-panelled phone in anticipation of new updates.

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(Twitter, as it happens, holds a patent on the “scrollable refresh trigger,” better known as “pull to refresh,” that has become a ubiquitous gesture in mobile apps. It has vowed not to go after other companies that use the gesture, as part of a broader intellectual property détente.)

On Twitter, what matters most is what’s on top. Some users end up finding that hierarchy oppressive; others, confusing. But the tyranny of the new is undoubtedly what has made Twitter so addictive for so many people, accounting for those nearly 2 billion timeline views a day.

The company’s challenge, especially in countries like the United States, where user growth has already slowed, is to wring more money out of that user engagement. It most recently generated $0.97 in revenue for every thousand timeline views; Americans were more valuable, at $2.58. To boost those figures, Twitter needs to display more ads or charge more for the ones it already does it show.

Or it can tempt you to refresh just one more time.

* Note: There’s a flaw in Twitter’s measure of timeline views, which the company acknowledged in its IPO prospectus: It doesn’t count any usage by users of TweetDeck or Twitter for Mac. Those applications load new tweets automatically—one reason they are beloved by a small but passionate subset of users—so the notion of a timeline view doesn’t apply. (Twitter doesn’t show ads to those users, either.) It’s not clear how much data Twitter ends up missing as a result.