Some Twitter users woke up this morning to find that they were unexpectedly following @MasterCard, perhaps an implied endorsement that was unwanted. William Shatner (yes, that William Shatner) was the first to notice this, according to Marketing Land. This appears to be a troublesome effort by Twitter to monetize what has become, in essence, a public utility.
According to Danny Sullivan, "Take a look at your 'Following' list on Twitter. You might find some brands or people showing up there, even if you don’t follow them. If so, that seems due to a new change in how Twitter is doing placement for promoted accounts."
Mr. Sullivan goes into considerable detail about how this works, especially the issue of an implied or misleading endorsement when none exists. For example, several of us on the TMO staff noticed this morning that we were (forced to be) following @MasterCard. (Not that MasterCard isn't a fine corporation.) When we blocked and reported it, a new merchant popped up on our Following list, @shOpryMills. We tried blocking and reporting that as well, and yet another popped up. Fortunately, after three of these cycles, I have seen no new merchants.
Changing your user settings doesn't seem to have an effect. My Twitter option: Settings > Security & Privacy > Promoted Content had been previously off and had not been turned on by Twitter. And yet, there I was following @MasterCard.
Clearly, this is a new revenue generating scheme by Twitter, but it will likely cause a firestorm of protest. No one likes to be told who to follow or appear to be following, even if it's some kind of variation on an account as an ad that you don't really engage with.
The problem with this kind of approach is the legacy of Internet services. The historical approach has been to build a fabulous, free service that people come to love and depend on. In time, some of the really successful services, like Twitter, take off and become essentially a public utility. Then, the financial backers put pressure on the service to monetize. At that point, the fundamental elements which made the service so endearing and useful are compromised in an uncomfortable, unwelcome way.
The crux of the notion is that people are all too willing to be exposed to new products and services when done tastefully and appropriately. But having ads thrust onto them in such a way that there's an implied endorsement is over the top.
Perhaps, in the next fews days, if there is a flurry of protest, Twitter will explain, rethink and retool.