We still have a lot of questions and theories about Elon Musk’s on-off-on-again deal to buy Twitter. But there’s one thing that everyone who opines about Twitter seems to agree on: Regardless of who owns it, Twitter is one of the most important social networks in the world — “the digital town square where issues vital to the future are discussed of humanity,” as Musk said. he put it last April.
Are we sure about this?
Yes, Twitter can be informative, entertaining and infuriating. For a subset of its users — and I’m in that — it’s exciting, addictive, and occasionally useful. And depending on how you look at politics, you might think, wrongly, that it represents true public opinion.
This is different, however, from being vital. And, worryingly for Musk or whoever owns Twitter in the near future, there’s a very real possibility that whatever relevance Twitter has is in permanent decline.
That might be why he pitched an idea to turn Twitter into something else entirely, as he did via tweet on Tuesday afternoon. (At this point you could be forgiven for not putting much stock in Musk’s tweets about Twitter or anything else.)
In the meantime. Here’s a thought experiment: What if Twitter went offline tomorrow, for good? Many of us take precious time back, for starters. More seriously, some people are missing out on an easy way to tell the world what they’re thinking, and a greater number are missing out on a real-time window to the world.
But realistically, most people don’t spend time on Twitter to begin with. It’s certainly not the younger generation of Internet users, who weren’t that interested in Twitter a few years ago and even less so today — just 23% of American teens say they use the service now, down from 33% in 2014, per Stasidi:
Even when users of all ages are taken into account, Twitter isn’t as popular as other social networks — yes, its 238 million monthly users are dwarfed by obvious suspects Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, but it’s also much smaller than the Snapchat , which has 347 million daily users, and WeChat, the Chinese app that has 1.2 billion active users. And despite efforts to move beyond its SMS-based origins—see the Instagram acquisition that never happened and the short-lived, predictive life of its Vine acquisition—Twitter remains firmly text-based at a time when big part of the world embraces images and videos.
And at the other end of the spectrum, some people exhausted by the chaos and militancy of Twitter are turning to quieter, more controlled conversations. The kind you might find in text messaging threads or moderated chats on Reddit or Discord.
Perhaps the best realist case for Twitter’s importance comes from author Ryan Broderick, who calls it “the primary site through which all culture travels” in America. But that’s not because everyone in America uses Twitter — Broderick argues that Twitter is just the top layer of social media, mostly because it’s pretty searchable, especially compared to TikTok (for now). It’s a guide to the rest of the internet, not a hangout.
But it’s easy to see why some Twitter users — particularly those in and around politics, like so many of the bold names that appeared in Musk’s tweets — place so much value on Twitter.
Part of this stems from the company’s early years, when it was often characterized as a democratizing tool: Twitter was where a Pakistani engineer might end up inadvertently live-tweeting the top-secret raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It was also where protesters in Egypt, Iran and Tunisia could organize against repressive regimes.
And much of that intellectual value was cemented during Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, where a man raised on television and print learned that he could use Twitter to get people’s attention by using “just the right amount of crazy’.
But looking back, you can also see why these use cases aren’t really scalable. Protesters can still use Twitter to organize, but repressive regimes can demand that Twitter remove posts, or they can restrict or disable it altogether, or throw Twitter users in jail.
I also think many of us have misread Twitter’s value to Trump: Yes, he enjoyed his ability to command the world’s news cycle with two keystrokes. But he only got that power because he was president of the United States, and the way he got that job was by spending years playing a successful businessman on television. Now Trump doesn’t have access to Twitter at all (though that could certainly change under Musk), and while his social media reach has plummeted since the Jan. 6 riots, he’s still very capable of speaking to the world whenever he wants. And we have no choice but to listen because he has a good chance of becoming president again.
But even if Twitter was as important as some of its biggest fans believe, that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Digital ecosystems have a lifespan, and it makes perfect sense to think that Twitter is about to.
“When I talk to people who look at the broader media ecology, it’s very clear that Twitter’s importance in this realm … has an expiration date,” The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel told me when we talked about all this in this week. Media transcoding. Twitter’s usefulness as a political tool had a decade that peaked during the Trump presidency, he believes. Now it is likely to give way to something new. “You can also imagine other politicians or other people coming in and using a different platform in a different way that makes it so important,” he told me.
The mandatory thought to be sure is that the 280 million people who regularly use Twitter aren’t going to stop using it overnight. And even if Twitter’s political and cultural significance fades as, say, TikTok grows, there will be people of all stripes who will continue to derive value from it.
That includes me, although I note that most of the people I followed in the very early years of the operation—mostly tech-oriented people like venture capitalists—seem to have stopped posting altogether. And as Musk himself pointed out, the non-Taurus celebrities with the most Twitter followers rarely use it anymore. Too much hassle, not enough upside.
Betting that anyone – including Elon Musk – can turn around a fading consumer digital company is a very risky proposition, not least because it’s never been done before. Once Internet users decide they’ve moved on to something else, they never go back. See: Myspace, AOL, Yahoo. See also: Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to create a new metaverse business to replace his aging Facebook business.
If you wanted to make this positive for Musk, you could argue that he doesn’t want to change Twitter, but that he wants to turn it into something else entirely — a “super-app” that would have … everything. What he tweeted on Tuesday. It’s unlikely to happen. But it’s perhaps more likely than bringing Twitter back to the importance many of us imagine it has.