A media pendulum swing in progress
Twitter's user data is bleak, but it's not an isolated circumstance. We are in the middle of a social media landscape reshuffling that was inevitable as competition decreased.
I teach our introductory mass comm course here at Lehigh. In the second half we go pretty hard on all things digital media, and one of the historical points I try to stress early on is the cyclical nature of building, destroying and innovating that has characterized the past 30 years of the mass public internet.
The model uses the reliable pendulum analogy, oft used in other fields such as political science to illustrate the tendency for momentum to swing to extremes before cycling back. It’s a familiar beat that we’ve seen time and again with online products. In this case, I characterize it the extremes of a centralized and decentralized Internet experience.
I say “experience” because perception is different than reality: the the internet is inherently decentralized in its architecture, and no amount of consolidation has been able to break that truth. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy, as the Cluetrain guys once wrote. The internet by design allows us to route around information chokepoints by embedding choice in web pages. People create things and link to them, and when others link to those creations they create a type of agenda-setter that defies operational control, one where the limits are only your network and ability to influence. There is a type of defiance that is engrained in open publishing, a kind of fuck-you to people who want to control information and conversation. The Internet’s eternal mood is seditious.
So decentralization is the internet’s building block, but of course the business side is a different story. In brute practice, the internet has gone through phases of intense decentralization and then consolidation of power and influence that begins to act like centralized control. Web offerings get so big and so dominant that they become the internet for some, acting as the primary (and in some cases only) window on cyberspace. These things are never permanent, but they are moments that happen and in their apex they snuff out a lot of the little players that make the internet unique and joyous. But like forest fires, these moments destroy things yet also end up seeding the ground for what comes next in a rebirth once the cycle starts over.
I’d (very roughly, with an incomplete list of exemplars) define the history of the internet pendulum as thus:
Starting 1993 (decentralized): Tim Berners-Lee gifts to the public the source code that allows for the web browser (nb: the internet has been around in various forms since the 1960s, so I’m speaking here of the mass public internet). This kicks off a wave of people creating websites and independent media offerings. Suddenly random people are competing with mainstream news and information. Remember personal home pages? Good times. I had one devoted to my college dorm’s Tecmo Super Bowl league. It was a wild time.
Starting ~1998 (shift to centralized): Home pages exist, but knowing HTML was a barrier and products such as Geocities sprung up using WYSIWYG visual tools for page creation. This centralized production and publication even if the content was independent. At the same time, corporations were starting to flood the internet, and news sites were starting to professionalize and wrangled control of a lot of our attention. Sprawling web pages were out there, but our attention was focused on legacy big players that came in and dominated the space. Independent sports score tracker SportsZone became ESPN.com, etc.
Starting ~1999 (shift to decentralized): Pyra Labs releases Blogger. This allows people to install blogging software on their own server and control that experience. This kicked off the era of mass blogging; by the mid 2000s we were creating 100,000 blogs per day worldwide (and abandoning 95% of them within a month!). It had the same visual tools as centralized web home creation, but the hosting and control for content were not centralized with any company but rather on an individual’s own web server space. This launched a wave of independent writing and gave birth to the citizen journalism movement, started in South Korea with OhMyNews. Most interestingly, Blogger gave us WordPress and eventually the ability to easily build bona fide publications beyond blogs, which launched independent news organizations that still exist such as TPM. As blog rings formed around affinities and fandoms they were, in essence, the first social networks but built around independent content.
Starting ~2003 (shift to centralized): Blogging became corporate, similar to what happened with home pages, with the rise of sites like LiveJournal and Xanga. More importantly, this got consolidated into network formation with the rise of social platforms. First Friendster, then MySpace, then Facebook and Twitter. For the next 15 years or so we’ve seen an era of multiple platforms that took the blogger model and created platforms that tried to host everyone, be it by text or images or video. The lines between content and social connection vanished. Critically, a mass of these products could be seen as a decentralized model when there is a lot of competition, but in truth their business model is built on gobbling up users and putting rivals out of business. In other words, the product was about consolidating power, one network to rule them all. Facebook ousted MySpace and Friendster, then bought Instagram to control the text and image space, while Twitter generally has owned the text microblog space and YouTube consolidated power in user-generated video. In the end, Google and Facebook control the vast majority of the digital ad market because their products garner by far the most user attention. Power shifted from professional news, which was decimated by the loss of ad revenue, and toward companies that featured content made for free by its user base.
Starting ~2020 (shift to decentralized): We are in the era of web3, and I should be clear that term right now is more conceptual marketing slogan than clearly defined concept that people agree on. It’s build on the idea of decentralizing finance, documentation and publishing using decentralized blockchain technology that is open to all but owned by nobody. Most of these projects are not going well! But it’s early days, and I am on the record as saying that while these early days feel more like a scammy gold rush than a refined product …
… that I believe what survives this phase will be transformational. Right now, I’d argue that in concept at least web3 represents an attempt to wrangle control from the players that have consolidated power. The tweet above has a thread outlining my thinking here. With web3 we’re about where we were in 1998, which featured overinvestment and hyperoptimistic thinking about revenues and profits. Then the Pets.com-ageddon happened and burned away a lot of bad web businesses, leaving us with something that could survive and thrive. I think we’re there with defi products like crypto. Hug your dogecoin.
I write all this because it looks like Elon’s deal to overpay for Twitter is about to close. He’s acquiring a platform that according to Forbes is bleeding super users (defined as people who log on 6+ days per week and tweet only 3+ times per week). Those low thresholds for a super user might not seem that difficult to clear, but that group represents only 10% of the platform’s user base while generating 90% of the content. So Twitter’s reality looks bleak: a small group of people producing most of the product, and that user base’s numbers are dwindling. That sounds like a death spiral to me.
Before you go jumping to conclusions about causality built by your own confirmation bias, I’d encourage you to read Ryan Broderick’s latest newsletter on the subject. He vibes with Kevin Roose’s assertion that social platforms are undergoing an identity crisis: Says Broderick (whose newsletter is excellent and one you should subscribe to):
Social media, as a whole, isn’t dying, but it’s changing. I don’t know where I heard this recently, but someone told me that our social networks are splitting down the middle and becoming either social apps or network apps. And I think that’s right. The smarter of these apps like BeReal and TikTok have realized they can just make their network apps optimized for the contact lists on their phones and package their content in a format that instantly identifies it as a TikTok or a BeReal when you see it in the wild.
Broderick might be right, but it’s really the opposite of what Musk wants to do with Twitter. His vision for his new baby is “X,” a super app that consolidates several different platforms and products under a single umbrella and is built on some of the same ideas driving web3. Super apps attempt to combine what you do with multiple apps into a single app with one signon for ease of use, but they aren’t new. There are several popular ones in Asia, such as Kakao in South Korea and WeChat in China, that consolidate social functions with payment services and shopping into a single experience. In other words, consolidation and centralization. The app becomes the internet, as far as you know.
It’s arguable what Musk wants is what Facebook, errr, Meta is trying with its metaverse gambit by having all those aforementioned functions but also owning the hardware access point (which would be akin to Twitter being a super app while also owning your phone and operating system).
The reason I’m skeptical of Musk’s intentions (and Meta’s for that matter) is users in the U.S. are already telling us they don’t want a centralized product in practice. This happens every time a product gets too big or powerful; it creates an opening for a player to come in and break off a piece of that experience with an innovation or better experience. Additionally, teh kidz don’t want to be where their parents are. The other thing is we like choice. Some of us want moderation, others want no-holds-barred expression regardless of user experience on the receiving end, and some just are in the middle and know when they’re uncomfortable with a product. We have yet to get a social product that can deliver a multitude of experiences to meet our wildly different expectations.
Consolidation destroys choices, and if you look at that timeline above it’s marked by a couple trends.
First, decentralization happens when someone creates an innovation and gives it away. Berners-Lee’s giving away the code, Pyra giving away the software, a blockchain open to all but owned by nobody. These are all attempts to create a public good by throwing open the gates and not controlling access. This doesn’t make such things an instant success, but it increases the odds that one of these will hit and play David to someone’s Goliath.
Secondly, platforms are fleeting. Facebook has been dominant for 10 years now, sure, but it did so by consolidation and it got lazy. Companies that form quasi-monopolies stop innovating, and Facebook in particular took the 1990s Microsoft path and preferred to acquire competitors rather than innovate. Twitter lacked a strong competitor to push it. YouTube hasn’t had much pushing it until recently. But look now what has happened. TikTok has come along and has all three of these Goliaths frightened (and they should be).
The users fleeing Twitter are looking for something different. Adding payments and NFTs isn’t going to bring them back, and it’s arguable the bleeding will accelerate if Musk follows through on his pledge to take away most of the moderation controls that make the platform somewhat tolerable despite still-rampant harassment. Goes double if he replatforms Twitter’s most toxic and controversial users such as Donald Trump and Alex Jones.
The question I’ve been asking this week is where we’d go instead if Twitter ascends to its final hellsite boss form and people leave the platform as they’ve threatened. Many of us have carefully built and cultivated a community on that platform. Twitter is an uneven experience across its user base, but with some attention it is possible to connect and form meaningful relationships there, to optimize the stream and unlock its potential as an empathetic learning space. But a mass exodus of people who don’t feel safe would destroy that. This is why centralization isn’t great, why this tendency for products to consolidate means that platforms that gain a lot of power ultimately end up owning whatever you make on there, including the associations you forge.
As I’ve written before, I’m in wait-and-see mode on the Elon era. It’s not that I don’t see the potential for this to all go south, it’s that I value what we’ve built there and am hopeful that the financial hit would be so bad that Elon would come to realize the economic incentive he has in preserving that for users. I’m in a weird position in that I’m a Twitter power user, but that data says I’m also one of those people the platform values most because of my activity there. He can’t afford to lose many of us given the financial risk he’s taken.
Perhaps irrationally optimistic, I’ll admit. But the alternative is so much worse, because the alternative is really just logging off. There isn’t another product like Twitter yet, so there is no place to go immediately. We can’t just port the community to a new platform. Failure is destruction, and we won’t come back just because he adds crypto trading. And rebuilding on a new service cannot happen if there isn’t a place to go immediately.
I do believe a solution is coming. The Bluesky project, which is a decentralized attempt to turn a Twitter-like service into an open protocol rather than a platform, remains the most interesting possibility. But it’s not yet reality, and we’re talking about building a plane while it’s flying. I’m also mindful that the social media history of the past 15 years is a graveyard of products that looked interesting and at times even had some traction. But we are going to need an alternative at some point even if Elon behaves. We are still social creatures that need connection, and these products are not forever.
The need ultimately rises out of monopoly. We are at the tail end of a centralization trend, if not already in the process of swinging back. I am not certain most of what we think of as web3 will represent the decentralized media we are swinging toward, even if there will be elements of it. More broadly, I think of it in product terms. The near-monopoloy stranglehold Facebook, Twitter and YouTube had on their respective sectors made their problems more glaring, and the need for more solutions and more innovation evident. We will get something to fill the needs users have as they flee megaplatforms. But we might have to wait, and what happens to those social connections in the meantime is a perilous question.
Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. Find him on Twitter (for now!) at @jeremylittau.
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