What Comes after Twitter?
A couple scenarios for Twitter and/or its replacement in 2023
Elon Musk has only been in charge of Twitter for five weeks.
It has not gone great.
The company has lost about 50% of its major advertisers. Elon has lashed out at those advertisers privately, calling their CEOs to berate them, and also publicly by tweeting variations on the theme “why do you hate free speech?” (The always-excellent Alexandra Petri had a delightful riff on this yesterday, “to be very clear, free speech is when you give me money.”)
This is as bad as it looks. It’s like a Brewster’s Millions-style plan to hobble and bankrupt a company at record pace. Ben Thompson estimates that, with all the layoffs and resignations, Twitter now has $3 billion of expenses per year, plus an additional $1 billion per year of debt payments that Elon saddled the company with. Twitter brought in $5 billion in revenues in 2021. About 90% of that was from advertising. So if Elon could just manage to keep the hollowed-out company standing upright without losing advertisers, it would be profitable.
But he’s not doing that. He’s wrecking the ad business. The Twitter Blue rollout has been delayed again (possibly because it is a fundamentally awful idea and everyone can tell). The industry-wide tech crash doesn’t help — ad spending is declining across the board, and Twitter has stepped forward as the weakest link in any ad campaign. Elon’s “Twitter 2.0” is poised to lose a ton of money, and that’s not even counting the likely fines from the FTC and the EU or the inevitable payments from all the employment lawsuits he’s facing.
Meanwhile, Musk is picking Twitter-fights with Apple CEO Tim Cook. (I, for one, would simply not pick a fight with Tim Cook where my company is on the line and his most definitely is not.) And he has declared a “general amnesty” for all accounts that had been permanently suspended. (It’s reminding basically everyone on Twitter of that one scene in Ghostbusters… those ghouls were locked up for a reason!)
He has also started tweeting anti-semitic tropes and Pepe the frog graphics. (I don’t think Elon himself is a virulent anti-Semite. It’s just that he desperately wants the virulent anti-Semites to like him. Which is still just plain awful.)
And it has still only been five weeks! The Elon fanboy brigade would frame this as a quick, cleansing fire. He’s tearing down the company fast instead of slow, rooting out the wokes and the non-hardcore. Just wait for 2023 when his true management genius unfolds. To those fanboys, all I would say is “well at least we all agree that the company is burning.”
That fire can’t burn forever. Twitter has already been reduced to the place where everyone goes to complain about Twitter. It’s piling up technical debt and unpaid bills. It has invited back all the worst actors — the people who so abused the system that they managed to earn permanent bans under Jack Dorsey — and it has done so while simultaneously laying off basically the entire Trust and Safety team. And it isn’t even 2023 yet.
I’ve been thinking about what comes after Twitter (or at least after this chaotic phase of Twitter). I was a guest on Katelyn Burns and Oliver-Ash Kleine’s podcast, “Cancel Me, Daddy” this week and we talked a bit about what this might look like (It was a fun conversation. Worth a listen!). I think there are two main possibilities.
What I think is most likely is that 2023 is going to feel a lot like 2006 online.
It’s easy to forget just how quickly Internet culture used to change. I’ve written about this before, but I find it remarkable how similar the Internet of 2022 is to the Internet of 2012. The Internet of 2012 was Facebook and Amazon, Apple and Google, YouTube and Twitter. It was accessed through smartphones and tablets and laptops. The Internet of 2022 is… basically those same companies and those same consumer devices. “Internet Time” has slowed to a crawl in this past decade.
By comparison, the Internet of 2002 is radically different than the Internet of 2012. Wifi was barely a thing in 2002. The dotcom crash still cast a menacing shadow over Silicon Valley. Google was still the little-startup-that-could. Amazon was the online bookstore that might never turn a profit. Apple had just introduced the iPod and it could only connect to Macs.
And the Internet of 1992? Forget it. We didn’t even have web browsers yet. It was still AOL, Prodigy, and bulletin board services back then.
It’s hard to imagine what comes after Twitter because we’ve become so accustomed to Twitter’s role in the broader media ecosystem. Twitter occupies a niche. We’ve spent 10-15 years building around that niche. We’ve also built and curated networks on Twitter over that time — who we follow, who follows us, and who we’ve blocked.
But the stability of the past decade might be crumbling now. And if that happens, we’ll all basically be fine. It’ll just be 2006 again.
Back in 2006, it was pretty standard to set up accounts on multiple social networks. I had a MySpace account and a Facebook account and a Tribe.net account. Creating an account on one of these sites was free. It only took a few minutes. Network effects hadn’t really kicked in yet. So even if you spent most of your attention-minutes on MySpace, you also had a Facebook account sitting dormant. Once Facebook opened up its API and MySpace became a thicket of spam accounts, everyone just moved their activity over to Facebook and let MySpace become a ghost town.
That’s what I expect will happen with Twitter alternatives. I’ve signed up for Mastodon and Post.news. I’m not using either of them very much at the moment. I’m not sure whether a federated social network like Mastodon will be able to handle Twitter’s scale while still offering Twitter’s simplicity. I’m not sure what the hell Post.news is even supposed to be. (Then again, Kara Swisher said on her podcast last week that Post.news wasn’t even supposed to launch for another 6 months. So the answer is probably “they’re working on that, and they’ll get back to us.”)
I expect we’re going to see a few more Twitter alternatives pop up in 2023. These websites are free, so I think the best approach is for everyone to just sign up for all of them and then… wait. It has only been five weeks; these things take time. Maybe Mastodon and the fediverse impress us and manage the scale challenges. Maybe Post.news figures out its deal and isn’t too influenced by the bad instincts of some of its VC investors. Or maybe it’ll be an entirely different site.
Twitter has 15 years of sedimentary buildup. That’s a real advantage. But it’s also the cutting edge technology of 2007-2009. Building an effective replacement for Twitter isn’t some impossible engineering puzzle. We’re going to spend part of 2023 drifting between sites while Twitter becomes steadily less usable. And then a new, dominant site will emerge and we’ll centralize again.
The other option is that Twitter in 2023 comes under new management. This could happen in a couple of ways.
First, the company might go bankrupt sooner rather than later. I can’t help but feel a sort of gallows-optimism that Elon might be failing so big, so fast that he ends up selling the company at fire-sale prices before a serious replacement has emerged.
The Twitter Blue subscription product isn’t going to work. Musk seems to think that they can offer cheap verification that will be appealing to the mass user-base but unappealing to spammers and scammers. That shows how warped his understanding of Twitter actually is. The people most likely to pay $8/month for blue checks are always going to be the ones who think verification will have more than $8/month of value for their shady business. The people less likely to pay for verification are the folks who just like writing snarky tweets about pop culture and current events. And the people least likely to pay for verification are the vast majority of Twitter users who read, but almost never write, tweets.
If the subscription product faceplants, and the general-amnesty-for-past-Twitter-ghouls makes the website a haven of 4channers and r/TheDonald alums, then skittish advertisers are going to keep walking away. Combine that with an emaciated Trust and Safety team and a technical infrastructure that barely holds together while software engineers are busy trying to impress Elon by building something new, and you have a formula for financial ruin.
It would be embarrassing for Elon to sell Twitter at a loss. But it will also be embarrassing when Elon has to appear before a Senate committee and explain why his company is such a shitshow that it poses a national security risk. Nilay Patel called it five months ago. Twitter, for Elon, is going to be hell. Eventually he’s going to want to escape.
The other possibility here is that Elon comes to his senses, hires a competent CEO, and steps back from the company. But that just seems extremely unlikely right now. Maybe, if the FTC fines and EU fines are steep enough, it finally knocks some sense into the guy. But it would be completely out of character. It’s technically possible, but I just don’t see it happening.
The point I most want to stress right now is that it has only been five weeks. Twitter in 2023 is almost as far in our future as Twitter pre-Elon is on our past.
What I know for sure is that the festival of Twitter-chaos can’t go on like this forever. At the rate he’s going, Elon will be pitching Twitter Blue on special Christmas episodes of the Timcast and on Jordan Peterson’s YouTube channel. He’ll replace the entire non-engineering staff with AI chatbots. He’ll invite Kanye West to take over for the communications team. The trendline is unsustainable. It won’t last.
2023 is either going to see a change of ownership/leadership that stabilizes Twitter or it will feature a return to the internet-habits of the mid-aughts.
Either way, give it a year and we’ll all basically be fine.
I mostly agree with your analysis, but I take issue with your conclusion. Pre-Musk Twitter provided an invaluable haven for marginalized communities, and a fast-track to elevating important voices and viewpoints. Twitter enabled Zelensky to put children's faces on a horrific war, Twitter enabled threats to US democracy to be clarified prior to the midterms. Twitter enabled Westerners to read first-hand accounts of the desperate struggles for freedom in Iran and China. Personally, these were primary reasons for spending time on Twitter.
Most of us will indeed be fine with an alternative to Twitter (the brand is so damaged, who would buy it, even in a fire sale?), but it's a life-and-death matter to many in the world. Their loss of access is a tragedy, engineered by a man who is a farce.
Much as the way that removing DJT from Twitter helped to decentralize him from the media, I think reducing people's attention from Twitter (and Musk himself) may be the best thing for everyone in terms of reducing the importance of this particular platform (and I was a dedicated user for 15 years). It took up too much of my time and attention for someone whose livelihood had to no connection to his Twitter presence, though that's on me, not anyone else. Two more days and my Twitter account will disappear for ever into the deletion bin and despite any temptations to reactivate it, I intend to leave that chapter behind me. Like you say, Dave, no matter what happens to Twitter in the next 12 months, almost everyone's lives will be largely unaffected, except perhaps in our memories and feelings.