Twitter's troubles are perfectly timed for Meta

It was a trying weekend for those who still believe Elon Musk has what it takes to turn Twitter into a success story. File Image: IOL

It was a trying weekend for those who still believe Elon Musk has what it takes to turn Twitter into a success story. File Image: IOL

Published Jul 8, 2023


By Dave Lee

It was a trying week for those who still believe Elon Musk has what it takes to turn Twitter into a success story. The embarrassment of having to limit the number of posts users could see each day - a move Musk said was necessary to lessen strains on Twitter's servers - was the surest sign yet that Musk's cost-cutting has come with real consequences, not the least of which is opening the door to competitors.

Musk has been fortunate that no real viable alternative has emerged since he acquired Twitter last fall. That could change abruptly as Meta has released its planned copycat app, Threads.

Musk said the drastic steps over the weekend were needed because of "extreme levels" of data scraping by "several hundred organizations." That may well be the case; Reddit has complained about similar issues. The explosion of AI is making gobbling up data a growing problem for platforms.

The average user presumably doesn't care what was going on behind the scenes. All that mattered was that for long periods over the weekend, users couldn't scroll through tweets the way they were accustomed to. Musk responded by posting tepid jokes, offering nothing by way of reassurance to his users and no suggestion of how "temporary" the limits on scrolling might be. Twitter's new chief executive, Linda Yaccarino, didn't say anything at all.

As with other times when Twitter has flailed, some users began exploring one of the several new Twitter alternatives.

One of them, Mastodon, saw a big spike in users this weekend, but can't shake its reputation as being overly complex for non-techy users. BlueSky, backed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, had to temporarily suspend new sign-ups in order to prevent being overwhelmed. T2, created by a team of former Twitter engineers, is still in limited beta mode and doesn't yet have a mobile app. Spill, another effort led by former Twitter employees, seeks to welcome the highly engaged "Black Twitter" community to a new app - but it is still invite-only and suffered its own server issues this weekend.

The arrival of Meta's Threads could immediately upend this competitive landscape. Its engineers know how to support billions of users globally, and alerting them to the launch of a platform would take little more than an alert from one or more of the Meta family of social platforms - Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Meta sees an opportunity to create what one executive is said to have described as a more "sanely run" Twitter clone, one where, for example, the owner doesn't amplify far-right views or discredit reliable sources of information. I can get behind that - but some Twitter users may not relish the idea of giving Meta more influence than it has already. They also might not want to pick up where they left off on another behemoth platform when so many micro platforms are sprouting up offering a place for smaller groups of like-minded individuals to gather.

To compete with Twitter and smaller rivals, Meta will also need to get over some of its deeply ingrained habits, such as thrusting gutter-grade influencer content into our feeds to juice engagement. Courting big influencers might be appealing to advertisers, but many Twitter users will balk at the thought of moving to a platform tailored for the creator economy.

But what's clear is that as competitors grow in strength, Musk's sloppiness in running Twitter gets all the more risky.

Twitter users might seem loyal today, but many stay on the platform for one reason only: The people to know are still there, too. The smaller apps might not be ready for prime time, but it won't be long until they have the potential to start to chipping away at Twitter's popularity as different communities gravitate toward new homes. Meta's Threads, meanwhile, has the ability to embrace fed up Twitter refugees en masse immediately. Once that momentum starts, it will be difficult for Musk to stop it.

Dave Lee is Bloomberg Opinion's technology columnist.