Everyone Wants to Be the Next “Twitter”…and How They’re All Doing It Wrong
The Most Important Story of the Week for 31-Aug-2023
(Welcome to the “Most Important Story of the Week”, my bi-weekly strategy column analyzing the most important (but often not buzziest) news story of the last two weeks. I’m the Entertainment Strategy Guy, a former streaming executive who now analyzes business strategy in the entertainment industry. Please subscribe.)
I realized that, last week, I never mentioned the tropical storm that hit Los Angeles, and its severe flooding out in the deserts. We were fine here, but I hope everyone else is okay.1 (Now, let’s move right back to worrying about heat...)
Combined with the ongoing strike, the usual August media slowdown seems to have dampened the pace of news for the entertainment industry. Which doesn’t mean there is no news—I seemingly have as many stories to write about as ever—but instead of “breaking” news, I can take some time to look at a slightly-longer, long-simmering topic...
Most Important Story of the Week - The Twitter Wars
Here’s a question: what brand name should you use, the name the public uses or the name that a company prefers?
When big companies rebrand, they often want everyone to call them by something new. Google became Alphabet. Facebook became Meta. And Twitter just became X. Yet 80% of the people on the street still refer to these companies by their original names. (In two cases, the old products continue to exist, and I still go to twitter.com to access “X”.)
This leads to some fun linguistic gymnastics in business articles, as nearly every news story on those three companies needs to remind readers of who they’re actually talking about. (Something like, "Today Meta (the parent company of Facebook) announced earnings…”) I’d prefer to just cut through the clutter and keep calling them by their original names.
So let’s talk about Twitter. (The company that wants to go by “X”.)
Since Elon Musk purchased Twitter for an eye-watering sum ($44 billion), the main questions for journalists and media observers is 1. Will Twitter die? and 2. What will replace it? And a few companies have tossed their hats into the ring to replace Twitter, from Substack to Facebook to TikTok to other upstarts, like Mastodon, Bluesky and one other one I can’t ever seem to remember.
Sure, sure, “social media” isn’t quite “entertainment”, but I like diving into other industries, especially entertainment industry-adjacent industries on occasion. If you look at any time use survey, one of the biggest recreation habits vying with old fashioned TV is social media, so it’s relevant. Hollywood no longer has a monopoly on video content, and yet the they also need social media to market their wares.
Calling it “The Twitter Wars” will probably never be as catchy as “The Streaming Wars”, but it might be just as fascinating. Today, I want to dive in to explain why everyone seemingly wants to be the next Twitter, and discuss if any companies can be. It’s a fascinating strategic experiment, and the outcome is far from certain.
(One last throat clearing: the debates over the impact of social media are fierce. Personally, I don’t love social media, if outright dislike it. I think it’s a big time suck, and I think many journalists should spend less time on it. Okay rant fin.)
The Prize —> Twitter
The biggest supporters of Twitter point to it as the “global public square”. If Martin Luther needed his church door to get the word out, now we have one giant church door that comes in an algorithmically-generated feed that everyone can read all the time.2
Even if society would be better off without a “public square”, it’s probably going to exist, somewhere, and owning that real estate would be very valuable. (Just ask the shopkeepers who surrounded the public square.) And it's valuable because Twitter—at its peak—was a great platform for intellectuals. That word sounds too highfalutin, replace it with “influencers who use words” instead. If you’re an attractive, aspiring model, you use Instagram. If you’re a singer, you use TikTok.
But if you’ve got a face for radio and a voice for TV, you write. And you use Twitter all the time.
This mean journalists and professors, which drew in political observers, novelists, screenwriters, and pundits. CEOs too. Really anyone who reads the news regularly and wanted another stream of word and “news”.
And this brought in a certain segment of customers: those who aspire to be an intellectual or want to interact with their favorite journalists and pundits. Because they were only a click away from the conversation. By the way, this includes me when I launched this very website/newsletter!
But it’s worth noting that this group of customers was not actually that big and Twitter has always been a fifth or sixth tier social platform…if not lower.
The Price —> Not $40 billion
I mentioned Twitter’s acquisition price above; no one thought Twitter was worth as much as Elon Musk paid for it at the time. And no one thinks it's worth that much now, and any valuation based on cash flow comes nowhere close to that price either.
Why bring this up? Because that price is the value to be won if you can create the next “public square”. But if that price is a market capitalization of only, say $8-12 billion, then is it really worth it for this many companies to dive into the market? Maybe! If you’re Substack, and you launch a Twitter replacement that adds $10 billion in value, then absolutely you do it.
But if you’re Meta and you lose several hundred million per year on a Twitter rival—and I’m not saying they are, but hypothetically—then it probably isn’t.
So keep in mind the “value” at stake here probably isn’t that high.
Twitter’s Problem —> It’s Changing…Everything?
I realize I haven’t quite explained how we got to the place where multiple companies are vying to become the new king of the Twitter hill. In two words, Elon Musk. He created the conditions for other companies to see a market opportunity.
If Musk is right and he’s making Twitter better, then Twitter will beat off all challengers. If he’s wrong, he opens the door for his competitors to replace him. And I think the latter is more likely.
To start, Musk codes as “political” in ways that Twitter didn’t initially. (Though it did acquire a reputation as left-leaning.) Since he’s a conservative, some users will want to avoid a platform featuring or supporting him. And he deliberately advertises and promotes conservative positions. Which he is allowed to do, but one third of Americans don’t care about politics, and the other two thirds hate each other because of politics. I think this is a valid strategic criticism and we may seem some user churn because of it.3
But Twitter is doing A LOT more than that, and that’s where the real problem. While I always doubted that Twitter would “die” due to product neglect, I did think Musk would try to change a lot of things and change he has. He started a fight with Substack. He blocks links to websites he doesn’t like, or makes them slow to load. He cancelled and replaced the “blue check marks” system. He also made it impossible to read someone’s feed on Twitter if you aren’t logged in. He created a “For You” tab to replace a “Following” tab on the interface. He’s currently dabbling with turning off the “blocking” feature. And content moderation has changed drastically. He also annoyingly prioritizes his own tweets.
To wit, all this has annoyed, at best, and alienated, at worst, advertisers.
The Competition —> A Lot
Can a new social media platform grab the “elite influencer” tier? And monetize that list?
Here is just a quick look at who is trying:
Facebook - Threads
BlueSky - BlueSky
Mastodon - Confusing
Substack - Notes
TikTok - Adding Text
Let’s quickly review the contenders. Substack, the newsletter publishing platform, rolled out a Twitter imitator back in the spring, but so far it doesn’t look like it’s had huge success. Especially to start, to “follow” another Substack account on Notes meant subscribing to their newsletter, and most people didn’t want a deluge of emails into their inbox! They’ve since changed this, but it's unclear if Substack Notes has really expanded beyond Substack publishers and their most loyal followers.
I would add, most journalists don’t see Substack as “non-partisan”, in a manner of speaking, mostly due to debates over free speech. In some ways, Substack’s goal is to disrupt all of journalism, so why would journalists support their platform?
They also made a huge mistake that nearly all social platforms are making. (But I’ll explain shortly.)
Instead, the probably-best-positioned Twitter alternative is Facebook’s Threads app, a spin-off of Instagram. Facebook touted HUGE initial sign-up numbers—and everyone repeated them—but since then usage has really stalled.
In part, Facebook has almost said they’re going after a different audience than Twitter—they don’t want political content, which is what journalists and pundits deliver!—so in a way, they’re trying to replace Twitter without understanding what Twitter actually is actually used for!
They also launched without a desktop version—that has since been fixed—which again misunderstands where most writers write!
They also made the same mistake as Substack’s Notes, but I’ll hit that next.
BlueSky sounds like the closest thing to a Twitter clone—an open source API based on Twitter—but they haven’t actually left Beta testing yet, so it’s tough to say when they’ll actually join the social wars, if at all. BlueSky still throttles their sign-ups and, even with that in place, the service goes down when big numbers of people sign up for the service, which happened earlier this summer after Elon made noises about undoing the block feature. Of these contenders, I wonder if they opened up signups at any point in the last six months—instead of requiring an early access code—if they’d have moved to the lead in this war. For example, I’m not going to go search out a code, so my content won't end up there.
Mastodon is similar to BlueSky, in that it is open source, so you can technically set up multiple networks. But joining it sounds very confusing, and while it seemed like the hot spot immediately after Musk closed his purchase of Twitter, it also seems to have stalled out.
Lastly, I read that TikTok is adding text to their platform. Like Instagram, this will have some impact, but I doubt it brings in all the word monkeys.
Axios, by the way, had a fun chart on how the social companies copy each other endlessly:
Lastly, yes, Twitter could stay the next Twitter. Let’s not rule that out. They are huge and network effects are very hard to overcome. But they’re making the same key mistake as everyone else…