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Thursday, May 16, 2024

Will Users Replace Twitter or Learn to Live Without It?

Since Elon Musk took over Twitter in late October, there’s been a sense that the ship is sinking, with the platform’s users scurrying offboard to safety. Musk’s actions, from mass layoffs to impulsive feature changes, have prompted widespread (if vague) speculation that Twitter itself will soon cease to exist, due to bankruptcy, technical failure, or a combination of the two. And while the platform’s future is uncertain, its current plight is an extreme version of one of the internet’s enduring qualities: Everything is constantly changing. We are nomadic in our platform usage, moving from one platform to the next—often involuntarily. And our ongoing efforts to replace what we’ve left behind are never entirely successful. Whether we cobble together a post-Twitter existence across a series of Mastodon and Discord servers or migrate our earnest professional posting to LinkedIn, no combination will fully replace Twitter (even if we’re better off as a result). 

If a longtime internet user compares their current online behavior with that going back a decade—or even a few years—significant differences will be apparent, as this animation demonstrates. New platforms are constantly emerging as others die out. TikTok only debuted in 2016, while Myspace had entered its final death spiral by 2011. Tumblr sputtered out in the mid-2010s due to a series of ownership transfers (before rising again as a symbolic relic of a bygone internet). Some platforms simply become obsolete, usurped by superior alternatives, undermined by broader technological trends like the rise of mobile, or duplicated by a competitor. And then there are platforms like Clubhouse, which enjoyed a burst of explosive popularity before fizzling out. At the individual level, we age out of certain platforms and into others or simply exhaust their possibilities and lose interest.

A few platforms, however, have remained vital for almost the entirety of the social media era: LinkedIn (launched in 2003), Facebook/Meta (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006). Now Twitter’s relative stability is suddenly threatened. A full shutdown still seems improbable—Twitter will most likely stagger forward in some recognizable form. But for those who prove to be serious about quitting Twitter, the age-old question remains: Where to go next? Or rather, how does one reassemble all of Twitter’s benefits outside of Twitter and potentially across an array of apps and platforms? What were Twitter’s essential features, and where else can they be found? Nearly a million users are estimated to have left Twitter in the first week after Elon Musk took over, so that’s a question lots of people are already asking (of course, many will just end up returning to Twitter, assuming it still exists).

Max Read recently imagined the aftermath of a scenario in which Musk paywalls all of Twitter and irreparably degrades the platform: “Tech workers decamp to LinkedIn and Hacker News; academics set up a series of semi-functional Mastodon instances … underemployed TV writers start overlapping, poorly produced political podcasts; sports fans go back to talk radio, message boards, and maybe Twitch streams.”

Read’s list highlights the incompleteness of any single replacement for Twitter. Many options, such as message boards and talk radio, even predate Twitter, implying a regression to the past. Mastodon—a federated network of self-hosted social network services with features similar to Twitter’s—has emerged as the closest direct replacement, but it lacks the same cultural centrality and will probably not attain it anytime soon. Twitter’s greatest strength, arguably, is its perceived status as a digital public square: Everyone important seems to gather at once, and consequential things happen there. Mastodon is unlikely to replicate that.

It’s tempting to believe that the market will quickly furnish adequate replacements for tech products that decline or die out, but it’s difficult to recreate the specific bundle of features, users, and content that a major platform like Twitter offers. Google’s infamous discontinuation of Google Reader in 2013 exemplified this: Other solutions, like RSS, could do what Reader did, but they were not seamlessly integrated into Google’s platform, which was a major source of Reader’s usefulness. Nearly a decade later, people still mourn Google Reader, suggesting that no true replacement was ever created.

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The very concept of unbundling and bundling, in fact, necessitates the elimination of certain features, however useful they are. Coined by Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale in 1995, unbundling and bundling have become pillars of tech strategy: disaggregating established sets of products and features and then reassembling the most valuable components as new offerings. A classic example is cable television, which the internet unbundled and then rebundled in the form of streaming services and other content platforms.

The value derived from unbundling something and then rebundling it often lies in the elimination of the bundle’s less profitable components—which are inherently unable to stand as independent products (the more profitable components are then recombined elsewhere). In other words, the demise of complex tech products frequently replaces useful or well-liked features with a void. And the market does not always fill that void.

Among tech platforms, Facebook is the quintessential bundle, and its ongoing evolution offers insight into how users might adapt to life after Twitter. In its early years of explosive growth, Facebook seemed to fulfill a utopian promise of providing a complete digital mirror of social life, a single platform that consolidated people’s network of family, friends, and acquaintances. A constant stream of new features—photo-sharing, event invites, groups—supported this goal, and each complemented the others, replacing a previously existing activity with Facebook’s version, supercharged by the social graph that underpinned it. It was possible to effectively manage and organize your entire social life using Facebook.

Facebook’s network effect was powerful and depended on widespread adoption: Each of its features was far more useful if everyone you knew was an active Facebook user.  Facebook had a transformative impact on social behavior, even among those who have since stopped using the platform. One striking example of that impact is our relationship to birthdays. Reminding users of their friends’ birthdays and giving them an easy way to post a “Happy Birthday” message was built into Facebook from its earliest days, as the company virtually automated a process that had previously required some effort. That ease also cheapened the act of remembering someone’s birthday. Facebook users would consistently receive huge volumes of birthday messages, many from people they barely knew.

In other words, Facebook replaced prior systems for remembering birthdays and did it so thoroughly that it became difficult to remember those birthdays without Facebook. It would prove difficult for this automatic process to become manual again, especially since remembering a friend’s birthday no longer represented the conscious effort it once had. Anyone quitting Facebook suddenly lost their primary system for remembering friends’ birthdays, and expectations adjusted accordingly, with birthdays ceasing to be something people are supposed to remember on their own. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Facebook killed the birthday as we once knew it.

For former Facebook users, a host of apps and tools exist to replace its various functions. We can track birthdays in our contacts list, send event invites using email or a single-purpose product like Paperless Post, and message one another using a multitude of different apps (we usually need at least a few to accommodate everyone we communicate with). There is unlikely to be one unified platform where we can find all of our friends, and many of the tasks Facebook streamlined have not found adequate replacements (any solutions are likely scattered across various platforms).

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As users quit Twitter, they will likely encounter a similar void in their digital lives. Although Twitter’s bundle is completely different from Facebook’s, both comprise distinct benefits that are unlikely to be found elsewhere. With effort, it’s possible to recreate almost any individual benefit that Twitter offers—its role as a news source, as a discussion forum, as a place to make friends, or as a marketing channel—but it is much more difficult to recreate Twitter’s specific combination of all of those. Like Facebook’s birthday feature, much of what we’ve relied upon Twitter to provide will likely slip through the cracks, or simply fail to reemerge elsewhere.

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have transformed not just the internet but culture itself. The voids created by the decline of those platforms are therefore not confined to the internet, but imprinted on our lived reality. While we may very well be better off without Twitter, just as we may be better off without Facebook, it would be nice to somehow preserve their benefits while discarding their shortcomings. But even though we might eventually find solutions to problems we once relied on those platforms to solve, it’s just as likely we’ll simply learn to live without them.

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