What comes after Twitter?

An old-town square with a building on fire. A crowd gathers around to watch.
Twitter’s “town square” — Image by Midjourney, directed by the author.

In the last month, everyone who writes about tech has had a hot take on the trash-fire that is the situation with Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. While I have thoughts, at this point I feel like the lesson of ‘’how not to lay people off” and “how not to manage people” are both self-evident, and I don’t have much to add other than: Be kind, assume good intent, and treat people like people.

A question I’ve been rolling around in my head that’s maybe a little more interesting is if Twitter dies, what comes next?

Below I’ll touch on what I suspect has made social networks succeed or fail in the past, what value I actually get out of Twitter, and what that might mean for the next thing.

Social networks fundamentally rely on people using them actively to remain valuable, and there needs to be a LOT of use. People go where their friends are, and will resist the friction of moving somewhere new if the value appears to be similar.

Think of it like moving house, except the house you’re moving to is basically the exact same layout as your current house, but all the cupboards are slightly weird shapes and don’t quite fit your things, the shower pressure is worse, you left half your things at your old house, and you’re an extra hour away from where your friends live. This is kind of how the current Twitter competitors feel to me at the moment.

I recall a similar case in recent memory where WhatsApp have had some pretty major public backlash, mostly around privacy and general concerns about Facebook/Meta as a business. These were huge catalysts to get people to switch their friend-groups over to something more aligned with the interests of people, such as Signal. I was part of this push. I managed to get my parents over to Signal, and a couple of small friend groups, but ultimately, there wasn’t enough people there yet, or a strong enough incentive to move. It turned out that over time, some features weren’t quite up to scratch either. I now message my parents on Signal, but call them on Messenger. I’m in a WhatsApp group for my son’s school class. I message my wife on Signal, or on Messenger when she’s at work because they block Signal’s ports. It’s a bit of a mess, and I see the same thing happening with Twitter.

People have a lot of time to spend on these platforms. Too much time, really. TikTok users spend an average of 1.5h a day on the platform. But this time isn’t evenly distributed. People have limited capacity to keep up with multiple social networks. As a result, only a handful of networks will reach a critical mass, and even fewer will be able to sustain it. If people do maintain presences on multiple social networks, it’s almost always because those networks offer fundamentally different experiences, with possibly different groups of people to interact with.

You may be able to connect cross-posting between Mastodon and Twitter, but you’re probably going to put most of your time into one of them when it comes to interaction and replies, and let’s be honest, most people aren’t going to cross-post anyway.

This means that when there isn’t a clear front-runner alternative, like there arguably isn’t right now for Twitter, the new players are all competing for an extremely limited pool of capacity, and all it’ll do is splinter that user base off from one another.

All successful social networks to date have been run as businesses. This means investment, and investors need growth at all costs. This pressure to continually grow means these networks try and pivot to stay relevant, capture new markets, and appeal to generations that find the things their parents use to be deeply uncool. A sustainable, profitable business model usually isn’t even enough when your investors want 10x or 100x return on investment, and are effectively gambling.

What we’ve seen happen here is that people find a network they like, it grows to a great size, and the active user base is pretty happy with the experience. Growth then slows, which doesn’t matter a single bit to those active users. Their friends are here, they have features they love, and they’re getting value.

But the investors aren’t happy. The company does market research. They identify cohorts of people that aren’t currently active users, and try to entice them to the service with new features, acquisitions, or product pivots. This does two things, directs resources away from the core experience, diluting it with features the user base didn’t ask for or doesn’t need, and brings in a set of users who have different expectations, altering the trajectory of the platform.

This definitely isn’t black and white, and can be a bit of a catch-22. Companies who don’t pivot to maintain growth often suffer when something new comes along and captures everyone’s attention. It turns out growth is a pretty good hedge against churn, at least for a while.

Every time a new network takes hold, it has a slightly different spin than the last. People flock to it because it’s new, because their friends are there, and because it offers an experience that other things they use do not.

To be reductive for a second:

  • Myspace focussed on connecting people through shared music tastes and customization that allowed people to leave custom homepages behind.
  • Facebook focussed on college & alumni groups (initially, before attempting every pivot imaginable).
  • Instagram focussed on sharing photography.
  • Pinterest focussed on visual bookmarking and mood boards.
  • Snapchat focussed on temporary videos.
  • Twitter focussed on short messages.

Crucially though, the focus often isn’t the value itself, but the constraints of these focus areas often unlock or surface value in interesting ways. Whatever the next thing is, will likely have a slightly different spin. I think it HAS to, to capture the attention of enough people to make the jump at once.

Twitter’s unique experience for me has always been about candid access to a huge number of interesting people. Because the barrier to creation on the platform is SO low (anyone can write 1–280 characters of plain text) it is really easy for anyone to sign up and contribute. Unlike other networks at the time like Facebook, where you needed to explicitly connect with someone, you could simply just send a message and have a conversation with anyone, whether they were your co-worker, or Lady Gaga. For me, this was a door to interesting professionals across the industries I work and play in.

I’ve been on the platform since 2007, when people were still figuring out what the value was. It was a lot of inane tweets about what people had for lunch, as no one was used to global-scale, real-time broadcast communication straight from their brains. Eventually enough celebrities tweeted about their lunch for everyone to kind of realize these were just regular people. It certainly hasn’t fixed celebrity culture (and in many ways has probably made it worse over time), but for a time, I think it demystified some of the weirdness that is the idea of celebrity.

I’m basically no one in the grand scheme of things, but I’ve been able to have interactions with the directors of films I love, musicians, artists, game developers, critics, CEOs, and designers.

At this stage, I don’t presume to know what comes next. To fill a gap left by Twitter, something will likely have to evoke the accessibility of people who’d otherwise be out of reach. It’ll probably have a focus on text, as video and photos have the market pretty saturated. It should have a focus on design and accessibility, and my hope is that it tries to make itself a safe place for people to hang out.

Whatever it ends up being, it’ll have to have a compelling vision that goes well beyond “Twitter, but open-source”.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.