Not unlike Twitter’s new Fleets, the company’s time is rapidly expiring. The platform, which is now dedicated to dunking on the earnest, yelling about conspiracies, and sharing bad memes, is on its way to the big social media cemetery in the sky to join MySpace, Plurk, and (hopefully soon) Facebook.
Here’s how it dies: Donald Trump will be off Twitter and on some other site by the end of January. This means a few things for the site that Jack built. First, it means tens of millions of his followers will delete the app en masse and their immediate families will stop paying it any attention at all simply because there is very little else on Twitter that is particularly interesting. These users will find something else—be it Parler, Gab, TikTok, or just shouting at people in Walmart. This exodus will force investors to rethink the company’s direction, and Twitter will add to its platform more media features that nobody wants. Old-guard users—journalists, comedians, weird Twitter practitioners, and the like—will slowly disband, finding greener pastures elsewhere. Microsoft or Google will buy the platform in a fire sale, and Jack Dorsey can move to Africa or go to a cave in order to meditate or whatever in peace.
“But what about those new features? Kids love new features,” you cry. Nah. Fleets won’t help it beat TikTok or anything else. Short-form episodic content and messaging, including group chats, is a saturated space that won’t cede an inch to Twitter. In other words, when there’s nothing on the site worth reading, people won’t come.
Twitter’s fate is intertwined with a number of false beliefs about the platform and its power.
Twitter seems like a two-way communications platform with nearly any other user; you can easily ping your favorite stars, including @realDonaldTrump, Captain Kirk, and even @JohnStamos—and many people do, feeling that tweets sent to a million-follower account will be noticed and read. They most assuredly won’t. This facade of two-way communication is arguably one thing that gave Trump his power on the platform. As the PrayersForTrump subreddit shows us, real people tweet at the president and others in power in hopes that their plights will be noticed.
This is rarely the case.
What Twitter really is is a broadcast platform and a bad one at that, as far as making money goes. Twitter marketing is a lie, and barring massive retargeting campaigns that blanket every page you visit, it’s a horrible way to encourage action, be it an attempt to get you to buy a product, get out the vote, or call for protest. As with every blanket statement, there are caveats here, but rest assured tweeting from a million follower account is approximately as powerful as tweeting from a 30 follower account when it comes to off-Twitter action. You’ll just get less dick picks and Venmo requests. There’s a reason the default ads you see on the service are so poorly targeted and mostly trend toward clickbait: It’s the only content that gets any interaction at all and most of that interaction consists of likes or retweets.
On top of all this, Twitter is already missing new user goals (even if it beat the most recent revenue expectations), and legal challenges loom as Congress considers changes to Section 230, the law that keeps social media platforms from getting sued into oblivion for what their users post.
So what does Twitter really have to offer in a post-Trump world? Not much. First, the rise of Parler and other right-leaning alternatives are currently fracturing the audience considerably, calving off huge groups of “free speech advocates” who want somewhere to curse. Further, kids in the U.S. aren’t joining Twitter in any meaningful way, eschewing it and other classic social media solutions for new ideas. Network interaction is cyclical and early Gen X web users raised on zines and one-way media gravitated to a service like Twitter because it offered them a way to broadcast. The next generations—late Millennials and Gen Z—want conversation, and they’re getting it in Discord and Twitch.
My prediction is Twitter and Facebook with flail mightily over the next few years but won’t disappear outright. Other platforms will rise above them with regularity until two or three more truly monolithic figures appear and then Dorsey and Zuck will be forgotten. Don’t believe me? Name another well-funded social media platform—Google Plus, Goodreads, Friendster—that is relevant today. All of those sites were once considered contenders for some version of the social media crown.
The Buddhist in Jack will appreciate the inevitability of all of this. After all, when Tekisui was dying and his temple had burned, he lay near his pupil Gasan who was already named his successor.
“What are you going to do when you get the temple rebuilt?” asked Tekisui in the koan.
“When your sickness is over we want you to teach there,” said Gasan.
“Suppose I do not live until then?” Tekisui asked.
“Then we will get someone else,” said Gasan.
“Suppose you cannot find anyone?” asked Tekisui.
“Don’t ask such foolish questions. Just go to sleep,” said Gasan.
Gasan, inevitably, died a few days later.