Will Musk destroy Twitter? Is he trying to? And should we care if he does?
Today we’ll be taking a short look both at whether or not The Site Formally Known as Twitter is doomed and, if so, whether or not that matters – with a digression into the wider social value of social media.
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If you believed everything you read, Twitter would have crashed and burned last autumn, within days if not weeks of the Musk takeover. As with Twain, however, reports of the Bird Site’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Though Twitter is undoubtedly facing challenges – including the loss of almost half its advertising revenue – it has lost less than 4% of monetisable users, suggesting little loss of market share.
It is worth remembering that there are a lot of people – particularly in the media and with prominent voices in political commentary – who strongly dislike Musk and want him to fail. Most changes will be interpreted in the worst possible light – even though some, such as his large-scale layoffs, have since been shown to be only the first in a round of lay-offs by most major tech companies.
One should also bear in mind that it’s harder to kill a social media site than one might imagine. There are all sorts of potential scenarios which look pretty bad, such as:
- Musk makes a lot of bad decisions and is forced to sell Twitter at a big loss.
- Ongoing challenges erode Twitter’s market share, permanently reducing its profitability and share price.
- A rival, such as Meta’s Threads, grows in popularity and becomes a serious competitor in the ‘short messages’ social media space.
All of these are obviously bad for Musk. But none of them would actually destroy Twitter. In all of them it would be likely to continue, albeit as a slightly smaller player in the social media world. We can see that, in general, this is how social media works – different platforms rise and fall (if the graph below went beyond 2018, we would see Tik-Tok climbing much higher) but most of the older sites remain.
Of course, sites can perish – look at poor old MySpace – but it’s harder than one might think.
So, will he destroy Twitter?
On the one hand, losing half of its advertising revenue (which is itself half of its total revenue) is pretty bad. On the other, he also fired half the staff, so that’s a big reduction in the cost base. Big companies like Twitter can makes losses for multiple years if investors believe the underlying business model is sound.
Again, on the one hand, some of the decisions he’s made seem very clearly not to have worked – Twitter Blue, for example. I don’t understand why he’d destroy an exceptionally recognisable brand – that has become a verb! – to rename it as X – and it does seem notable that he was forced out as CEO of PayPal when he tried to rename it X.com. His general style and approach are also somewhat unconventional, to put it mildly.
On the other, the phenomenon where one company (or individual, or private equity) takes over another one that it considers to be overstaffed and inefficient is often pretty brutal and destructive. Not every business decision has to be a good one for a company to succeed. And despite – or perhaps because – of his unconventional style, Musk has built not just one, but three incredibly successful businesses in very different fields: Paypal, SpaceX and Tesla. It’s reasonable to conclude he’s a whole lot better at what he does than 99.99% of those observing and commentating.
Specifically, the number of monetisable users holding up seems to be a stronger indication than the advertising revenue, which is likely to be a lot fickler – both easier to lose and easier to regain. On a purely personal level, I’ve not noticed any diminuition of ‘big name’ posters posting – all the key politicians, journalists, policy makers and many others are still there(1). The exodus to Mastodon was a fleabite; the site still has fewer than 1% of Twitter’s regular users. Threads I could see being a much larger threat; backed by Meta and linked to Instagram, it has the potential to be a genuine rival. The big question – other than whether it takes off at all, which is by no means inevitable – is whether Meta seeks to position it as a head-to-head rival, or a new platform operating in an adjacent space.
Overall, I’d incline to ‘no, he won’t destroy Twitter’ – but that’s a low confidence prediction. I think that the takeover has probably gone less well than he’d hoped, and that some of his business decisions had paid off worse than he’d expected. But I think the fundamentals remain strong enough, and the rivals still too weak, to overcome the fundamental strength of the network effect. My guess would be that Twitter will still be around, and still the dominant site for instant takes on news and politics, in five years’ time.
OK, but if he does destroy it, should we care?
In a word, no.
I’m not a social media refusenik – indeed, if you’re reading this blog there’s a good chance you found it through social media. I’m a regular user of both Facebook and Twitter, and have a profile on LinkedIn, though rarely use it. And I definitely appreciate that there are positive elements of social media: sharing photos with family members, maintaining connections with geographically distant friends, or building communities – local or virtual – around shared interest groups are all genuinely good things.
Just because something has positive effects though, doesn’t mean it’s net impact is positive. The negative impact of social media on mental health – particularly amongst young people, and even more so on young women and girls – is becoming increasingly apparent.
Cyber-bullying, loss of direct, physical interactions and self-esteem issues all seem to be negative impacts of social media. It is also suggested that social media may be helping to drive political and other forms of polarisation, as it becomes easier to retreat into filter bubbles. Rather than making us more connected, social media may be making us more isolated.
Now, I’m not going to say categorically that social media is a net societal bane – though I do think access should be more restricted (and these restrictions enforced) for minors, just as we restrict access to alcohol or gambling. It may be that the positives outweigh the negative – or that they’re roughly balanced, and it’s about individual responsibility and self-control. I certainly enjoy Facebook and feel I get more good than harm from it.
Within the firmament of social media sites, though, Twitter seems particularly negative(2). I use it for work, and also for the very explicit personal goal of increasing engagement on this blog. But last summer, when I had two months off between jobs I deleted it from my phone and felt noticeably happier.
Having started paying attention to my mindset, using Twitter a lot makes me feel noticeably more irritated and angry at the world – there are simply so many bad takes (from one’s own perspective!) that one is exposed to. It’s maximised for engagement and likes, not thoughtful commentary – or sharing personal elements of life with a network of friends. I’ve seen several commentators go off the rails people who had seemed sensible, sucked down rabbit holes of increasing polarisation (e.g. starting by opposing lock-downs, and ending by claiming vaccines don’t work and supporting Putin) – there are some great accounts of how this phenomenon happens. I now take care to actively minimise the amount of time I spend ‘doom-scrolling’ and to try to go on only for a specific purpose (i.e. to post something, or to check what news is dominating in the morning) – and then to stop once done.
On a wider scale, it also seems to have pretty negative impacts. It’s turbo-charged the already frenetic 24-hour newscycle, favouring ‘hot takes’ or ‘instant reactions’ over more considered responses. We can see this most clearly on election nights, where the first seats to declare exert an out-sized impact on the narrative. It drives polarisation and tribalism. The ‘Twitter Mob’ is an almost entirely negative phenomenon, driving injustice and bullying. The large numbers of anonymous users and bots generate vast amounts of racial abuse – and, indeed, abuse of all sorts. Of course, it’s not all bad – I’ve had some interesting conversations, read articles I wouldn’t have come across and made contact with some people I’ve subsequently had useful professional conversations with. But overall, it’s pretty bad.
Of course, there’d be some inconvenience if it went away. I’d have to find some other way to direct people to this site. Some people who’ve built up larger followings would no doubt be more inconvenienced, and have to migrate and rebuilt on other sites. But we’d get by.
Not all social media is equal. Substack is great; Tik-tok terrible; Facebook somewhere in between. But ‘microblogging’ is clearly at the negative end of the spectrum. It may not be likely, but we should not weep if Twitter perishes from the face of the earth.
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(1) I appreciate I engage with a specific bit of Twitter.
(2) So does Tik-Tok, with its brutally efficient engagement-maximising algorithm – even aside from the folly of allowing the Chinese Communist Party to collect vast quantities of data on precisely how to capture and manipulate our citizen’s attention and focus.