Some musings on Twitter’s future

This is an archived issue of my newsletter The Sleepy Fox from 22 November 2022. If you want to receive new issues as they are released, you can sign up for delivery to your inbox here.

Header image: “3D render of a blue bird on a wire, digital art” (AI-created artwork by DALL·E)

Well, as it turns out my plans have changed yet again and I do have some time for writing this morning. The small joys of a freelance lifestyle, I’m telling you… Anyway, I want to use this time not to bring you the news of the day as usual, but to explain my view of the whole Twitter debacle under Elon Musk. I hope you like this deviation to the formula. Please let me know what you think, either by answering to the newsletter email or by commenting on the Substack post itself.

Is Twitter Doomed?

The mainstream media, driven by tech reporting from Silicon Valley, seems to have implanted the idea in people’s heads that Twitter is doomed. I am myself extremely jaded on this topic. I’ve been on Twitter for 14 years. I used the platform excessively long before most of the people discussing its demise now even knew what it was. I’ve used it though extensive technical problems, political shitstorms and through the attempts of companies like Google and Facebook to try and steal a significant portion of its userbase. I’ve used initiatives to provide open source and federated alternatives years ago; and I’ve seen them rise and fall first hand. I’ve seen previous Twitter CEOs doing extremely dumb things to the platform and the company was in financial trouble for most of its existence anyway. In short: I’ve seen all the stuff people are currently so worried about before and I’m not convinced it will kill Twitter.

The migrations we are seeing right now, to Mastodon servers and apps like Hive, are temporary distractions driven by this panicked idea that Twitter is doomed, which is being perpetuated by many of my colleagues. I’ve seen all of that before as well. Before long, people will realise that their social bubbles haven’t migrated with them, that the reach just isn’t there or that their favourite celebrities are now on another platform. And most likely, they will go back to Twitter. Or maybe delete their accounts — but that happens far less frequently than you might think. As long as nothing comes along that has the same functionality and perks as Twitter and then, over time, gains more traction than the blue bird platform, Twitter will be just fine.

Yes, there is the distinct possibility that it dies because Musk shuts it down when he gets bored — like Google got bored of Google+ back in the day. There is always that possibility with companies. But it won’t die for stupid reasons like “Musk fired all the engineers and now nobody knows how the thing works anymore”. Twitter isn’t rocket science and it is built on an open source software stack where probably all of the parts are in use at other companies. And there are enough software engineers in Silicon Valley. Some of them don’t care about politics and will be swayed by Musk’s limitless funds. Twitter might have issues — maybe they can just bring back the fail whale in lieu of a fix, like in the good old days — but it won’t go down because there aren’t enough engineers at the company.

But back to being displaced by a competitor. There simply are no competitors who do what Twitter does. In my view, these are Twitter’s unique selling points:

  1. Twitter is centralised: The very point hipster tech nerds complain so much about is one of its strongest suits. All the celebrities are in one place. You know exactly how much reach you have. Everybody knows what “I am fabsh on Twitter” means and their brain can easily convert that sentence into a way of following me on the platform.

  2. Public by default: One of the reasons I, like many other journalists as well, was initially attracted to the platform. Knowing that everything you post is public and can be read by everyone — including people off Twitter — keeps people honest. At least as much as that is possible on the internet. Everything being public also means that everything is quotable in the press. Which has brought tweets, rather than Facebook posts, into newspapers and on screen in primetime TV shows.

  3. Twitter isn’t a walled garden: Posting on Twitter means posting on the actual internet, not some bastardised AOL version of it, where people who are not on the service can’t really see what you are doing. Every tweet is just another website that I can, if need be, read via curl. This is why the previous president of the United States could pioneer it as a public announcement platform to speak directly to the people — in a sense using Twitter’s unique functionality, so loved by the press, against the press. Facebook changed the very way it operated to emulate this aspect of Twitter. And other platforms, like Instagram (and to a degree TikTok) do not have the same impact on society that Twitter has, because they lack this old-school web approach. They think of themselves as apps, but people treat the content within apps as ephemeral, whereas the actual internet (for lack of a better term) is forever.

The combination of these three factors allows hitherto unknown people to reach a hitherto unthinkable amount of eyeballs across the internet. Somebody in Silicon Valley, I forget who (it might have been on an old episode of This Week in Tech), used to call Twitter “the nervous system of the internet” and I think that is one of the best descriptions of the service I have heard in the last fifteen years.

And since nothing has come along offering a similar feature set without being immediately crushed by the weight of Twitter’s userbase and reach, I think Twitter will be fine. Musk will probably continue to run it with his deep pockets — just like Bezos runs the Washington Post — and the storms will abate over time. The shouts of “it’s dying” aren’t as loud as they are because that message is particularly true, they are that loud because it’s a good story. And the press, more often than not, likes to believe a good story is true as it makes them money.

Again, I only see Twitter dying if Musk actively decides to shut it down because he’s lost interest or gets pissed off with it. In the very long term it could of course also die the natural death of social media platforms: Because tastes change and everyone moves along to a new way of doing things. But that would have to be a whole new social media paradigm, ie. more akin to a video-only site like TikTok than to just another Twitter clone with a prettier interface or a particular social justice bent.

Atom’s Demise

At the end of this special edition of the newsletter, please allow me a small detour towards things that are actually dead. Yesterday, I learned to my dismay that the tool I do all of my writing in, the text editor Atom, was killed by Microsoft quite a while ago. As you might imagine, I was not happy about it and wrote this blog post last night. I just want to take this opportunity to say goodbye to Atom, a friend of many long years. I wrote all of my articles, podcast show notes and blog posts during the last six years in that editor. And almost a complete novel. I’ve never liked Microsoft and I have to say they’ve yet again managed to alienate me even further. They just couldn’t let it be. They had to embrace and extend Atom into VS Code. I don’t care that VS Code is open source. It’s ugly and Microsoft has shoved its slimy tentacles into every possible orifice of it. I’m sure once the dust settles, VS Code is moving to a subscription model in the cloud. Because Collaboration™ …or something.

Anyway, thanks for reading. Don’t forget to leave feedback. And tell your friends!