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The future of Twitter has nothing to do with its past

BY Paul Armstrong

15th Jun 2023 Technology

The future of Twitter has nothing to do with its past

Is this really the end of Twitter, or the beginning of a new era? We consider the challenges facing the bird app, and how it may evolve

Twitter used to be reliable, fun, and everything you wanted (and didn’t know you wanted) in one place.

Once a weird collection of information, instant news and funny memes, now it’s almost the opposite as the platform has swung to the right thanks to a new master.

What happened? Can Twitter be saved? Are there other options?

What are the problems with Twitter?

Elon Musk, who recently bought TwitterCredit: Ministério Das Comunicações, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Since acquiring Twitter, Musk has focused more on stripping features than innovation

Let’s start with how we got to where we are today. It’s not all down to Elon Musk, although he is certainly painted as the villain in this story and isn’t making massive steps to improve the quality of the service.

In reality, Twitter’s issues started with a lack of focus on development of the app as growth stalled and things stagnated for a long time.

"Musk has slashed staff, focusing on tweaking features and destroying good verification procedures"

Twitter is now under new ownership and growth is happening, but not  in the numbers Musk needs to see to keep advertisers happy (a significant number have stopped advertising. This does not help to make the site more appealing for users).

Instead, Musk has slashed staff, focusing on tweaking features and destroying good verification procedures rather than building anything new.

How Elon Musk's X app could shape Twitter

Musk has said he wants to turn Twitter into something he calls "X". The company is now X Corp, an entity incorporated in Nevada instead of Twitter's previous domicile in Delaware.

Twitter isn’t gone, but it is clear that Musk wants to build his hallowed X app—a “town square” more akin to China’s WeChat app, which does a lot more than just posting and messaging, including paying bills and booking travel.

The one thing Mr Musk has done is introduce Twitter Blue, a subscription platform that has not yet taken off, with just 640,000 of the 230 million plus monthly users opting to subscribe (many of whom cancelled after using the service for one month).

The benefits and feature bundles are just not there for regular users right now.

"Musk wants to build his hallowed X app—a “town square” more akin to China’s WeChat app"

Tracey Follows, founder and CEO of Futuremade, believes Twitter’s future is intertwining an identity and transactional focus. 

"Twitter has always been inextricably linked to profile building. That is to say, it is used to construct and reflect identity, both of people and companies," she says. 

"If Musk shifts Twitter from this emotional platform to a more transactional X platform, it disrupts the value exchange entirely. Twitter becomes less about reputation, shifting it into soulless commercialisation, and that is a turn-off to many—other mega-platforms do that better."

What Twitter alternatives are emerging?

Jack Dorsey, founder of TwitterCredit: Mark Warner, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Jack Dorsey, who founded Twitter, has launched an alternative service called Bluesky

As you might expect, with a popular service in such disarray and being run by a politically polarising individual, many users have left the site for other options.

A variety of frontrunners have been emerging over the last six months, including Post (which offers micropayments for articles so creators get paid), T2 (very similar to Twitter and made by ex-Twitter employees), Bluesky (created by Jack Dorsey, who created and ran Twitter), Mastodon (a decentralised Twitter clone that has 4.5 million irregular users).

None are exactly rocketing up the charts, and a lot have only brought over power users and journalists, but not in significant numbers to threaten Twitter’s dominance.

However, that may all change when Instagram introduces the codenamed "P92" or "Barcelona" this summer. According to Meta, they are “exploring a standalone decentralised social network for sharing text updates." 

Thanks to their 1.63 billion users (as of April 2023), even if only three per cent of users use the service (remember they won’t need to make a profile, so the barrier to entry is lower than another platform), Twitter would be eclipsed overnight.

Will Twitter survive?

The next six to twelve months are crucial for Twitter to show users that the platform still has value now and will in the future.

Twitter Spaces, Twitter’s audio room functionality, might become the jewel in its crown, as Instagram will not have this functionality.

Right now, nothing is certain as much-loved features are turned off and deprioritised.

X app needs to have a clear plan and vision that existing and new users can get behind, though the issue might not be the app as much as who owns the app.

Twitter (sorry, X Corp) is also about to get a new CEO—Linda Yaccarino, chair of advertising sales for NBC Universal and friend of Elon.

"X app needs to have a clear plan and vision that existing and new users can get behind"

At this time, it is unclear who will be running the show and what Yaccarino will bring to the table beyond advertising clients and assurances for the ad community.

Where does all this leave Twitter and its millions of users? In this unsure territory, both sides understand the app needs to change, and plans are afoot, but the "good old days" seem to be fading into the distance, making a lot of users sad and wary.

Users with millions of followers are updating bios and making different decisions.

What was thought to be a sufficiently safe app for brands (and people, although trolls and bots have been a problem for years) is now seen as a nice-to-have, not a must-have for many spooked users, and, more importantly, brands.

Twitter has always been more than the sum of its parts, but right now, the service needs some TLC and less explosive leadership if it wants to phoenix into something new that users, new and old, want to use.

Visit whatdidopenaidothisweek.substack.com/about to learn more about Paul Armstrong and his work

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