Twitter is facing tough times, with users leaving the social network, and challengers beginning to offer appealing alternatives to those seeking social connection and microblogging capabilities. We examine the disruption facing the social media space, and consider what may lie ahead for the incumbents and the disruptors.
Shortly before Twitter’s takeover deadline, Elon Musk entered the offices of the social media giant carrying a sink. The tongue-in-cheek spectacle was a signal for all those invested in the turbulent journey of Musk’s ownership of the platform: a new era of Twitter is imminent. Let that sink in.
Naïve to the impending employee layoffs and policy changes that Musk would make during his first weeks at the helm, Twitter users made memes about the event and flippantly threatened mass exodus. Fast-forward to the middle of 2023, and the reality of Musk’s ownership of Twitter has certainly sunk in.
Challenging times for Twitter
With social media permeating almost every aspect of daily life, Musk’s bet on Twitter and his track record of commercial success (whether you agree with his personal politics or not) should have been a boon for the platform, which had historically been underperforming since inception. However, leaked internal memos from the billionaire suggest Twitter has recently experienced a steep devaluation, losing more than $20bn in value compared to the price he paid for it in October 2022. Musk has faltered at the challenging endeavour of navigating both the technology underpinning the platform, and the tangle of social issues that have become part and parcel of these kinds of enterprises.
A series of divisive moves from Musk has been central to Twitter’s problems. As a free speech absolutist, he was at odds with what many see as Twitter’s often politically-motivated discourse, and, espousing “political neutrality”, he reinstated the banned accounts of controversial and famously right-wing individuals. He also stripped back the content moderation on the platform itself by downsizing the teams responsible for it, as well as removing specific protections in Twitter’s Hateful Conduct Policy. Finally, Musk introduced the subscription-based Twitter Blue in an overhaul of the platform’s blue tick system, inadvertently empowering the impersonators of companies, celebrities and politicians, to much confusion and online chaos. With all this upheaval, it is perhaps no wonder that more than 30 million Twitter users are expected to leave the platform over the next two years.
But if not Twitter, what?
Twitter’s demise has left an unexpected vacuum in the online space for users still looking for the social connection and microblogging capabilities it offers. Although Meta’s rival platform, Threads, has been launched with the promise that it will eventually become a decentralised platform, it does not operate as one yet – unlike Twitter’s other notable contenders.
Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made headlines as early as 2019 with his Twitter alternative, BlueSky Social, which, although currently operating on an invite-only basis, has grown in popularity in the wake of Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Micro-blogging platform Mastodon has also seen its membership increase as internet users look to plug the gap and seek refuge from Twitter’s increasingly erratic service.
Crucially, these alternatives operate as decentralised networks, with revolutionary differences when compared to major platforms like Twitter, Meta and Google – in terms of both content moderation and usability. Decentralised social networks operate on independently-run servers, rather than on a centralised server owned by a single entity or private business (who may be beholden to the agenda of investors rather than users). BlueSky Social CEO Jay Graber describes it as such: “If centralised platforms are governed like monarchies, federated networks are governed like little feudal societies… there isn’t just one king ruling over the whole network, but there are smaller lords who still have absolute power over their domain.”
The appeal of decentralised networks
Practically, a decentralised social media network allows users to police their own spaces, as well as dictate their own standards and algorithms for content curation and moderation. By creating an open standard that can be tailored by the user, regulation of content is no longer held by a dominant central company. This addresses a notable criticism levelled against the larger social media sites like Twitter and Facebook that operate as centralised systems – the power they hold over freedom of speech.
While decentralised networks might sound like a free-for-all, the reality for these new platforms is that gaining any share of the market still relies heavily on the traditions and practices of existing popular social media sites. While they have more freedom to enact their own content mandates, platforms like Mastodon still provide a set of guidelines for user conduct and have server-specific moderators in place.
And familiar concepts have also been adopted when it comes to usability, with both BlueSky and Mastodon supporting a number of Twitter conventions like replies, retweets, favourites, bookmarks and hashtags.
Is wider disruption imminent?
When BlueSky was launched, Jack Dorsey wrote: “The biggest and long-term goal is to build a durable and open protocol for public conversation…”. While the technology underpinning these alternative platforms is viable, ultimately the extent to which they will be able to disrupt the status quo will depend on their popularity with users.
Fledgling social networks are difficult to grow due to network effects – we join social platforms because our friends are there. This is one advantage that Threads has over the decentralised alternatives: it operates as a companion app to Instagram, and allows users to import their Instagram following list to Threads when they join, making it easy for them to find people they already know or follow. For the decentralised social networks, the challenge of growing their user base is tougher. But unless they can do so, there is a risk that they will stagnate, especially without the all-important contributions, feedback and recommendations from new users.
It’s not just users that these alternatives may face a shortage of: gaining the attention of developers to work on the platforms can also prove to be a serious challenge. Established tech companies are renowned for their employability, and are often perceived to offer greater stability for software developers than fledgling platforms. A lack of development expertise can have a serious impact on the user experience of sites, which could in turn further reduce their scalability.
An additional obstacle to the decentralised challengers is the fact that centralised networks have become deeply-entrenched parts of daily life for millions of people. Networks like Facebook and Google not only provide access to their main services, but also verification for a host of others, including personal banking, online dating, and digital tools for work. The ripple effects of shifting to a decentralised platform rather than sticking with the likes of Twitter could have consequences for personal and professional access to a host of online services.
In the context of these challenges, Meta’s Threads could well become the ultimate winner in the space – offering the best of both worlds, if it makes good on its promise to shift to a decentralised protocol. It boasts the dual advantages of experienced developers and an instant userbase: the platform was created by Instagram’s established team, and has been joined by over 100 million Instagram users since launching on 6 July 2023.
Even if the popularity of these alternatives declines in the latter half of 2023, their efforts teach important lessons about the role decentralisation may play in the future of the internet. It is highly likely that decentralised systems will make a key contribution to the transition from the Web 2.0 landscape, ruled by big tech, to Web 3.0, liberated by the user.