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Why is Twitter so important?

BY James O'Malley

7th Oct 2022 Technology

Why is Twitter so important?

Why does Elon Musk want to buy Twitter? For a relatively small social media platform, it holds a lot of clout, says James O'Malley

Back in April, Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, made a dramatic attempt at a hostile takeover of Twitter, for a cool $44 billion.

That’s a lot of money, even for a billionaire tycoon, and the takeover attempt quickly descended into public mud-slinging and court battles.

But whoever wins (we’re not going to know for some time), I think the most interesting part of the story is the more fundamental question: why would Musk even want to buy Twitter in the first place?

If you look at the size of Twitter, its appeal isn’t obvious. The company makes a relatively meagre profit each year, and in terms of the number of users, Twitter is a relative minnow among social media networks.

"Twitter carries absolutely enormous cultural power, and has an unrivalled ability to shape the news we read"

It has around 436 million users every month, which isn’t nothing—but is also a long way behind the likes of Facebook (near three billion), Instagram (two billion), and TikTok (one billion).

So why does Musk want to spend a considerable slice of his own enormous fortune on a social network that not many people, in the grand scheme of things, actually use?

The answer might be what makes Twitter so interesting: what it lacks in revenue, size or growth potential, it makes up for in a much harder to define way. It carries absolutely enormous cultural power, and has an unrivalled ability to shape the news we read, the content we consume and the culture we live in.

Twitter is real life

Elon Musk sits in suit on chair against black backgroundOwning Twitter would give Elon Musk immense influence over the world's watercooler conversation

Twitter’s cultural power is easy to see. Click on any random news article, and there’s a good chance that somewhere in the text, it’s quoting what someone said on Twitter.

And when big news stories happen, like, say, the defenestration of a prime minister, where does a lot of the action happen? Why, Twitter, of course.

What makes the platform important is essentially its clientele. Twitter is the place where the most powerful and influential people like to hang out. It’s a trendy bar full of rich people, whereas Facebook is the virtual equivalent of the McDonald's across the street.

Because Twitter is mostly based on short, text-based posts, it is perfectly optimised for conveying information, an argument, or a joke, at immense speed—which makes it extremely useful for the likes of politicians, journalists, executives and celebrities.

"What Twitter is really good at is acting as essentially a global watercooler"

Essentially, anyone who has a job where it is important to know what is going on in the world, and might need to respond to events quickly.

What Twitter is really good at is acting as essentially a global watercooler—a persistent backchannel for gossip, jokes and informal connections.

It’s a place where new ideas emerge, or arguments happen, and because the people doing the gossiping are important, influential types, what happens on Twitter can actually affect the rest of the world too.

A particularly fun example of this happened in early July when culture secretary Nadine Dorries launched a vitriolic tweet attacking her party colleagues. It backfired spectacularly, and her tweets reportedly led to more cabinet resignations, ultimately hastening the end of Boris Johnson’s time in Downing Street.

If she’d posted on Instagram instead, perhaps her parliamentary colleagues might not have noticed.

Twitter is not real life

However, the ability of the “Twitterati” to influence the real world does have strange consequences too. Because Twitter is very effective at setting the news and cultural agenda, what happens on Twitter becomes tomorrow’s newspaper front-pages and the topics being discussed on the radio.

This can sometimes be good, as if you can get a relatively small number of people on Twitter talking about it, you can elevate otherwise unappreciated points of view. But the same mechanism can also elevate the esoteric controversies that only people on Twitter care about, that bear little relation to the "real" world.

"If you can get a small number of people on Twitter talking about it, you can elevate unappreciated points of view"

Recent politics also gives us a good example of this: during a debate between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, the BBC spent ten minutes talking about mean tweets that had been sent about the candidates’ clothes, instead of, for example, anything that actually matters.

But in any case, it’s a powerful example of, whether you love it or loathe it, Twitter's immense cultural power. And I think this explains why someone like Elon Musk might want to pay big money for it.

Because even if it doesn’t make business sense, if you own Twitter, you suddenly have a voice in the world’s most important watercooler conversation.

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