Twitter’s Demise Is About So Much More Than Elon Musk

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Written By Pinang Driod

It’s really, really hard to kill a large, beloved social network. But Elon Musk has seemingly been giving it his absolute best shot: Over the past year, Twitter has gotten a new name (X), laid off much of its staff, struggled with outages, brought back banned accounts belonging to Alex Jones and Donald Trump, and lost billions in advertising revenue.

Opportunistic competitors have launched their own Twitter clones, such as Bluesky, Mastodon, and Threads. The hope is to capture fleeing users who want “microblogging”—places where people can shoot off little text posts about what they ate for lunch, their random thoughts about politics or pop culture, or perhaps a few words or sentences of harassment. Threads, Meta’s entry, which launched in July, seems the most promising, at least in terms of pure scale. Over the summer, it broke the record for fastest app to reach 100 million monthly active users—beating a milestone set by ChatGPT just months earlier—in part because Instagram users were pushed toward it. (Turns out, it’s pretty helpful to launch a new social network on the back of the defining social-media empire of our time.)

But the decline of Twitter, and the race to replace it, is in a sense a sideshow. Analytics experts shared data with me suggesting that the practice of microblogging, while never quite dominant, is only becoming more niche. In the era of TikTok, the act of posting your two cents in two sentences for strangers to consume is starting to feel more and more unnatural. The lasting social-media imprint of 2023 may not be the self-immolation of Twitter but rather that short-form videos—on TikTok, Instagram, and other platforms—have tightened their choke hold on the internet. Text posts as we’ve always known them just can’t keep up.

Social-media companies tend to only sporadically share data about their platforms, and of all the main microblogging sites —X, Threads, Bluesky, and Mastodon—just Bluesky provided a comment for this story. “We’ve grown to 2.6 million users on an invite-only basis in 2023,” BlueSky’s CEO, Jay Graber, wrote in an email, “and are excited about growth while we open up the network more broadly next year.” So I reached out to outside companies that track social analytics. They told me that these new X competitors haven’t meaningfully chipped away at the site’s dominance. For all of the drama of the past year, X is by far still the predominant network for doing brief text posts. It is still home to more than four times as many monthly active users as Threads, Bluesky, and Mastodon combined, according to numbers shared with me by data.ai, a company that tracks app-store activity. (The company looks only at mobile analytics, so it can’t account for desktop users.)

Mastodon and Bluesky amounted to just “rounding errors, in terms of the number of people engaging,” says Paul Quigley, the CEO of NewsWhip, a social-media-monitoring platform. Threads has not fared much better. Sensor Tower, another analytics firm, estimates that fewer than 1 percent of Threads users opened the app daily last month, compared with 18 percent of Twitter users. And even those who open the app are spending an average of just three minutes a day on it.

That doesn’t mean X is thriving. According to data.ai’s 2024-predictions report, the platform’s daily active users peaked in July 2022, at 316 million, and then dropped under Musk. Based on its data-science algorithms, data.ai predicts that X usership will decline to 250 million in 2024. And data.ai expects microblogging overall to decline alongside X next year, even though these new platforms seem positioned for growth: Threads, after all, just recently launched in Europe and became available as a desktop app, and to join Bluesky, you still need an invite code.

Of course, these are just predictions. Plenty of people do still want platforms for sending off quick thoughts, and perhaps X or any other alternative will gain more users. But the decline of microblogging is part of a larger change in how we consume media. On TikTok and other platforms, short clips are served up by an at-times-magical-seeming algorithm that makes note of our every interest. Text posts don’t have the same appeal. “While platforms like X are likely to maintain a core niche of users, the overall trends show consumers are swapping out text-based social networking apps for photo and video-first platforms,” data.ai noted in its predictions report.

Short-form videos have become an attention vortex. Users are spending an average of 95 minutes a day on TikTok and 61 minutes on Instagram as of this quarter, according to estimates from Sensor Tower. By comparison, they’re estimated to average just 30 minutes on Twitter and three minutes on Threads. People also want companies to shift to video along with them in what is perhaps the real pivot to video: In a recent survey by Sprout Social, a social-media-analytics tool, 41 percent of consumers said that they want brands to publish more 15- to 30-second videos more than they want any other style of social-media post. Just 10 percent wanted more text-only content.

Maybe this really is the end for the short text post, at least en masse. Or maybe our conception of “microblogging” is due for an update. TikTok videos are perhaps “just a video version of what the original microblogs were doing when they first started coming out in the mid-2000s,” André Brock, a media professor at Georgia Tech who has studied Twitter, told me; they can feel as intimate and authentic as a tweet about having tacos for lunch. Trends such as “men are constantly thinking about the Roman empire” (and the ensuing pushback) could have easily been a viral Twitter or Facebook conversation in a different year. For a while, all of the good Twitter jokes were screenshotted and re-uploaded to Instagram. Now it can feel like all of the good TikToks are downloaded and reposted on Instagram. If the Dress (white-and-gold or black-and-blue?) were to go viral today, it would probably happen in a 30-second video with a narrator and a soundtrack.

But something is left behind when microblogging becomes video. Twitter became an invaluable resource during news moments—part of why journalists flocked to the platform, for better or for worse—allowing people to refresh and instantaneously get real-time updates on election results, or a sports game, or a natural disaster. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter turned to Twitter to organize protests and spread their respective messages.

Some of the news and political content may just as easily move to TikTok: Russia’s war with Ukraine has been widely labeled the “first TikTok War,” as many experienced it for the first time through that lens. Roughly a third of adults under 30 now regularly get their news from TikTok, according to Pew Research. But we don’t yet totally know what it means to have short-form videos, delivered via an algorithmic feed, be the centerpiece of social media. You might log onto TikTok and be shown a video that was posted two weeks ago.

Perhaps the biggest stress test for our short-form-video world has yet to come: the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Elections are where Twitter, and microblogging, have thrived. Meanwhile, in 2020, TikTok was much smaller than what it is now. Starting next year, its true reign might finally begin.

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