Mike Isaac

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Twitter Considered Buying Topsy, Too — Here’s Why It Didn’t Happen

Apple just spent a bunch of money on social analytics company Topsy. And while everyone has good guesses on what Apple wants from Topsy, no one seems to know for sure.

But before Apple, Topsy had at least one other suitor you may not have known about: Twitter.

According to sources familiar with the matter, Twitter considered buying Topsy a number of times throughout the company’s six-year history.

Topsy’s value proposition is fairly straightforward. The company has had access to Twitter’s Firehose — the ever-flowing stream of all the tweets sent on Twitter — since practically the beginning of Twitter’s existence. It’s one of a few companies to have had full access to that data, and for years Topsy has been doing interesting things with it; Topsy can search the corpus of Twitter data to surface breaking news, gauge overall sentiment toward specific topics and even potentially predict future events.

Obviously Twitter has all that Firehose data already. But Topsy was attractive to Twitter, according to sources, because in some cases Topsy’s search technology and tools were even more effective than Twitter’s own in-house search tools, which have been a weak point for Twitter for years. (Note that Twitter is attempting to improve its search functions, however slowly.)

Twitter, of course, isn’t commenting. And Topsy isn’t responding to my emails.

In the end, Topsy went to Apple, not Twitter. That’s likely for at least a few reasons:

  • Hubris. Twitter’s existing engineering team had to some degree discounted what Topsy had built, sources said, arguing that Twitter’s team could build some of those tools itself without needing to make an outside talent and tech purchase.
  • Price. For the reported $200 million-plus that Topsy went for, it was likely too much to pay for a team and tech acquisition that Twitter engineers believed they could replicate themselves.

Ultimately, Twitter ended up nixing the idea on a few occasions.

But here’s the thing with the above line of thinking: Even if Twitter’s team were capable of building what Topsy created, it was still a matter of devoting the time and resources to do so. It’s possible that Twitter could have gotten more bang for its buck in devoting its own resources to the project. Or, perhaps in a smaller talent acquisition — like, say, the team behind the startup Spindle, composed of many ex-Microsoft Bing search engineers.

Whatever the case, Topsy will bring its search and data-splicing expertise over to Cupertino, Calif. What will the Topsy team do for Apple? Whatever Apple wants it to. (In the meantime, go read Azeem Azhar’s excellent LinkedIn post on Topsy and its search infrastructure possibilities for Apple.)

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald