The Future of Twitter
Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter has more financial promise if he can unleash the innovation that the company used to inspire
On Twitter, everything moves at a lightning pace. It’s hard to believe that it’s been only a week since the news was confirmed that Elon Musk is going to buy the place and take the company private.
This came as wild news to me. I’ve been using Twitter for 13 years and have made many friends on the platform. I even found my current job through a call-out on Twitter that I was looking for something new. Though Twitter has been important in my own life and work, I’ve long seen it as an aging platform that will inevitably descend due to its inability to do any meaningful innovation over the last several years.
I’ve seen a lot of people claim that Musk paying a premium for the platform is the preface to a disaster. People are comparing it to Yahoo’s disastrous purchase of Tumblr.
This misses the mark substantially. Mark Zuckerberg famously described Twitter as “as if they drove a clown car into a gold mine”. My crazy position is I think the gold might still be there. But to explain my reasoning, we have to go back in time to understand how much Twitter exemplified the early tech boom, how much it exemplified the squandering of that promise, and how it might be able to bring back some of that magic.
Let’s go back in time to 2012. Mitt Romney was an evil right-wing monster, a misogynistic corporate raider who stupidly thought Russia was a global threat to democracy. But, more important for this story, Twitter was still a private company.
Back in 2012, one of the things that made Twitter so cool was that it was a programming playground. You could access Twitter’s API (an in-depth data-feed of tweets, follower info, status, and search information) without even logging in. It was a heyday for programming boot camps, and many of them would use Twitter as a starting point to teach people how to make a call to an API, parse the data, and display it for a user. A newbie programmer could write his own basic Twitter reader in less than a day.
And Twitter let people do this. In fact, it was encouraged. There were a dozen great third-party Twitter apps (Tweetbot, Seesmic, Hootsuite, Echofon, Twitterific), each offering their own user interfaces and features that Twitter hadn’t quite pulled together. In 2011, Twitter purchased TweetDeck for $40 million because it had such a better UI for hard-core Twitter users that they had captured the eyes of hundreds of the most valuable users. TweetDeck was so good that many people use it today despite the lack of maintenance or improvements.
Additionally, there was an entire ecosystem of third-party twitter-adjacent tooling. Twitter didn’t have image hosting, so several companies build image hosting sites that integrated with Twitter. Twitter’s character count meant URLs were hard to share so people used bit.ly or any number of fly-by-night URL shorteners. Twitter wasn’t just an app, it was an ecosystem of innovation.
For several years, Twitter was an absolute madhouse of third-party innovation, discovery, and utility. Any developer could build something new and useful with their data APIs.
Add to this the fact that Twitter was famously known as the free speech platform. Its commitment to free speech was such that people went there knowing it was where people were talking freely, posting whatever they wanted. This was a big part of the draw Twitter had; it was a complete free-for-all.
But as Twitter became more and more of a standard social media business, this wild-west of development and engagement was reined in. Eventually, Twitter started limiting how many users you could support with your custom third-party app.
This meant that a passionate developer with an excellent app that people loved could be suddenly kneecapped. This happened to Rowi, the most popular Twitter app on Windows Phone at a time when Twitter didn’t even offer an app on that platform. Twitter decided they wanted to own the entire Twitter experience; a decision almost certainly tied to the display of advertisements. If ads were the primary way to make money, they wanted to make sure all users saw those ads. Owning the experience (which meant limiting third-party innovation) was seen as the best path forward.
Owning the experience morphed into Twitter turning into a product company. Rather than integrate and partner with an existing video platform, they developed their own form of video sharing (the now defunct Periscope). They developed Twitter Moments, Twitter Spaces, Birdwatch, Twitter Analytics, Fleets, Media Studio.
Even now, they’re spending a fortune on content moderation, which they see as the key to bringing more users to their platform. It is instead a strategy that involves spending enormous amounts of money to make sure that they have fewer users, fewer advertisers, and perform worse on every metric they claim to care about.
Twitter started out as a thin service for quick communication. The reason it started at 140 characters is that it was imagined as a way of sending SMS messages (capped at 140 characters) to a group of people. It wasn’t a media company, it was a protocol.
Maybe it’s time to head back in that direction.
Unleash The Innovators
If you want to see how Elon Musk buying Twitter could be a good financial move, think of all the paths that can unleash the innovation of third parties. Amazon doesn’t make all the products they sell, they simply provide the storefront and let other people do the hard work of market fit and product acquisition. Amazon has the visibility and they let other people chase the money while paying them for the privilege of chasing that money.
Twitter once had that lightning in a bottle but they gave it up. They replaced the innovation of scrappy, hungry third-party developers and brought all the hard work in-house, where they paid through the nose for it and released half-baked features with spotty platform support.
There is a lot of potential in Twitter, but it means doing less and giving other people the space to do more. I imagine a platform that is realigned such that its primary goal is to allow other people to build their own platforms on top of it. Twitter needs to demonstrate that users and developers can make money (and thereby make Twitter money).
There are so many possibilities that open up when a company doesn’t have to dream up, budget, and implement every feature by themselves but gives outside parties the opportunity to integrate and build on top of a core product. We could have third-party apps with custom moderation so everyone can get the level of content moderation they prefer. We could have subscriptions that give users to a curated subset of Twitter or access to newsletters, books, or paid events. Someone could build an app that includes “reputation” tools like those in Reddit or Stack Overflow. Twitter could go from simply showing ads to creating an ad platform that developers can connect to so ads through Twitter ads can be integrated into other apps or even newsletters.
Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter may be an attempt on his part to open up the platform that is the starting point of so much of the news today. This may simply be a good investment. We shouldn’t discount the possibility that there is a lot of untapped potential in this little bird site.
Disney Shorts: Merbabies (1936)
I think I’m going to focus on the Silly Symphonies for a while. They represent such high quality of the Disney animation brand in terms of animated art, experimentation, and technical innovation.
Merbabies is clearly an experimental precursor to the underwater scenes of Pinocchio. They even pre-test the Monstro the Whale sneezing scene that they will eventually employ in that feature film. The Disney animation team is playing with a lot of water concepts here.
modular bubble animations that can be used repeatedly instead of animating every bubble
haze filters on underwater transition scenes to give the sense of soft focus as we look underneath the water
perspective shots that allow character animations to be seamlessly reused in high population scenes
gradient animation transparency for underwater surfaces
It’s remarkable that these technical innovations are integrated into a cartoon that succeeds on its own merits. This short is beautiful, filled with small but lovely character moments like the baby snail who wants to perform in the underwater circus. The end is a bit abrupt, but we can forgive it in light of the many lovely and adorable scenes that this short has to offer us.