$44 billion and eight months later. It’s finally all over for Elon Musk

It’s all clear in hindsight

Ahmed Baba
Thursday 13 July 2023 05:23 BST
Elon Musk brands Mark Zuckerberg a 'cuck' in new jibe as Twitter rival Threads grows

No wonder Elon Musk wants to fight Mark Zuckerberg in a cage match.

In just five days, Threads, Meta’s competitor to Twitter, has gained over 100 million users and become the fastest-growing app ever. Threads already has about a quarter of Twitter’s total monthly active user base. I was among Threads’ first 500,000 users and have been using it more than Twitter these past few days. It’s clear this platform has the potential to be the Twitter killer, and it seems Elon Musk isn’t coping well with his rival’s success.

Twitter is now threatening to sue Meta and Elon Musk is resorting to personal attacks, tweeting "Zuck is a cuck" and literally challenging Zuckerberg to a d*** measuring contest. I wish I was kidding, but it’s real. While Musk may be furious with Zuckerberg, he only has himself to blame for Twitter’s downfall. Since the countless Facebook scandals of the 2010s, Mark Zuckerberg has likely been eager for an opportunity to rebrand himself, and Elon Musk just threw him an alley-oop.

Elon Musk has done the impossible. His behavior was so openly depraved and Twitter became so insufferable, that he made a Zuckerberg platform look good in comparison. Since Musk bought Twitter eight months ago, he spent that time personally spreading far-right conspiracy theories, tweaking the algorithm to favor himself, and condescending his own users. Musk removed the legacy verification system, taking away blue checks from journalists, like myself, and giving them to anyone who pays $8.

These changes caused a whirlpool of disinformation as brands and politicians were impersonated. No one could tell who was who, and Twitter’s For You algorithmic feed began to push a sea of unhinged far-right content down all our timelines from $8 blue checks. Instead of being a useful tool for sharing and reading real-time information, Twitter turned into an outrage and radicalization machine.

As Twitter cultivated an even more toxic vibe, Musk’s changes negatively impacted Twitter creators who made the platform great in the first place. In the blink of an eye, an egomaniacal billionaire came along and seemingly made all that work creators put in feel worthless. As someone who spent years publishing my journalism on Twitter and gaining thousands of followers, I felt the impact of these changes firsthand.

It didn’t take long after Musk’s October 2022 purchase of Twitter for users to begin calling out, essentially begging, for alternative platforms. Over the past year, many have popped up and some did very well, earning hundreds of thousands of users. Bluesky, Spoutible, Spill, and Post.News are a few of the prominent alternatives. These alternatives have thriving niche communities, but it’s a difficult climb to reach the hundreds of millions of users needed to become the primary Twitter alternative. Before Threads, it appeared we would go down the path of a more slow, prolonged migration from Twitter into dozens of alternatives that each serve different Twitter niches. But Threads appears to be able to do what other alternatives haven’t been able to.

If users arrive at a new social network with zero followers and not enough people they’re looking for are on it, growth rate will be impacted and the initial hype will fade. This is where Meta’s advantage comes into play and explains the rapid success of Threads. Threads integrates directly with Instagram’s user base of two billion people.

Twitter’s value proposition was always the people on it. So once Musk’s extremism started scaring people off, an opportunity emerged. But these new alternatives only ended up carving out fragmented niches of Twitter depending on the market they targeted, and couldn’t quickly capture the entire mainstream market. It’s clear in hindsight that the biggest Twitter competitor would only come from a platform that already integrates with a larger social network.

Meta is definitely an imperfect facilitator given their role in the erosion of democracies around the world, teenage mental health, and more. I’ve written extensively about this and called for more regulation. I’m under no illusion about the damage Meta has done. But Elon Musk has been so overtly damaging to Twitter that users who are looking for Twitter-like functionality are left little choice but to adopt the next best popular alternative that will have similar network effects.

Threads is also interesting due to its promise to build on top of the decentralized ActivityPub protocol, which competitors like Mastodon use, enabling people to transfer their followings over to other social networks. This decentralized approach also can give users the ability to manage their own communities, potentially leading to a more hands-off moderation which can let companies off the hook. I’m sure Meta likes the sound of that.

Threads is of course still missing key features - like a following feed, DMs, and searching of posts. Users just have one algorithmic feed that serves them content from both people they follow and recommendations of those who don’t. So far, it hasn’t been serving me far-right extremist content, and I hope it stays that way.

With the 2024 election looming, how Threads handles news will be important. Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri, who is leading the Threads project, said that this new platform is not intended to replace Twitter and he doesn’t want the app to encourage news and politics content, in comments that echo changes to the Facebook algorithm. This was unwelcome news to other journalists who, like me, flocked to the platform looking for a new place to share our work. We’ll see if they actively deprioritize news, and whether journalists and news consumers will stick around.

Some key questions remain: Will Threads actually kill Twitter, or can they co-exist? At what user number will Threads start integrating advertising - which they have promised to do? How will advertising impact the user experience? Did Meta learn from their democracy-eroding mistakes? Or will they repeat history and allow their desire to maximize ad revenue at all costs to win out and enable disinformation and hate to thrive?

Whether Threads will truly kill Twitter is unclear, but what is clear is the fact Elon Musk already killed what Twitter once was and we’re now left with a shell of the platform we all once had a love-hate relationship with. Musk went into debt to buy Twitter for $44 billion. Its valuation had already been slashed to $15 billion earlier this year, well before Threads came along. This will likely further cut its valuation.

Elon Musk lit $44 billion on fire to push a clear political agenda. Business leaders should stop following his lead.

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