Musk, Twitter and the future of online platforms

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Insight:

The acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk marks the end of an era, and the beginning of a new project for him and his investors. But is this also what we want? And are we ready to make a different choice, if not?

Reading time: 4 minutes

On Wednesday, October 26, Elon Musk walked into the Twitter offices in San Francisco with a kitchen sink, for a video captioned “Enter Twitter HQ, let it sink!” On Thursday, he formalized his purchase of the company with a tweet addressed, “Dear Twitter Advertisers”. In that first post as ‘Chief Twit’, Musk pledged a successful working relationship with the goal of making Twitter ‘the most respected advertising platform in the world’, which he said was his fundamental goal. , while extolling the importance “for the future of civilization” of having a “common digital public place”.

Average users are asked to ponder the feasibility of achieving either goal amid the chaos that has accompanied the entire saga of this purchase, which will legally end before 5 p.m. Friday, according to the date limit set by the court.

But while there’s room to wring your hands on all these theaters, there’s also an opportunity to be more proactive in the wake of Why this sale is about so many.

If we take a step back, Twitter is just a business. The digital platform it supports? One among many others generated by human beings: a product, and quite recent at that. It was founded in 2006, billed as a ‘microblogging’ forum in a world of Blogger, Livejournal, Tumblr and other major players in the ‘blogosphere’. It was a magical digital age, really, where everyone, even government websites, started blogging as a way to connect with others and be heard.

In the 2010s, Twitter and Facebook became important players in global politics: first, for their role in the Arab Spring; later, most notably as forums for disinformation, violations of campaign finance laws and even escalation towards genocide. After the 2016 election, American citizens could sometimes expect foreign and domestic politics to unfold in real time via the POTUS Twitter account. During the pandemic, Twitter has grown in importance as a way to connect us to each other during lockdown, but also as a way to divide us through the spread of misinformation.

It’s been a wild ride these 16 years, in other words.

But things are changing. And some things have changed since the beginning.

Musk’s purchase of Twitter for $44 billion, for example, is considered well above fair value for the company, which tech analyst Dan Ives says is closer to $25 billion. Although rumors swirled about massive layoffs after the purchase (up to 75% of the workforce, which Musk said today was not accurate), the company already had struggled to maintain profitability and faced the possibility of downsizing. Yahoo Finance reports that Twitter’s second quarter fell short of revenue estimates, in an economy that sees advertisers at all levels leaving big tech companies (like parent company Alphabet and YouTube) in the lurch.

It’s also why Musk’s immediate warmth toward advertisers comes as no surprise: Twitter relied on them for 90% of its revenue in 2021. Musk now plans to monetize Twitter by using it as an accelerator to create what he calls “X, the whole thing”. application “. It will look a bit like China’s WeChat, which is an integrated entertainment, communication, service provider and payment system⁠ – and a project Musk can easily apply his experience with PayPal to, as long as he keeps the investor and subscriber confidence along the way.

In other words: he doesn’t really buy Twitter. It buys its infrastructure, and its nearly 400 million users, with a plan to guide them both in creating a radically different service in a few years.

Which leaves us with a simple choice: is it a service we want or not?

And if not, are we ready to build something else instead?

For example, in Colombia, leapfrogging has been a key element of technological advances, as adversity often creates an ideal playground for innovation. While in Canada I was still paying rent with real checks in 2018, lower levels of financial security here necessitated a more forward-thinking system: an online application to get well-documented payments for rent, utilities public and other commercial services. Similarly, banks here were using elaborate two-step authentications long before my Canadian bank started doing the same, but out of necessity, due to higher fraud rates.

So instead of throwing our hands at what Twitter might become, let’s imagine a future where this major shift takes us all through it: online and in politics.

Experts on Asian digital economies recently said CNN, for example, that Musk faces a very different market than the one that welcomed WeChat developers when they sought to become their own region’s “everything app” in an era of looser state regulations. Many other mobile payment systems are already well established in the United States, and Western countries have tried more openly to enforce (though they have also lost, in court cases to date) anti-monopoly regulations.

All of this gives Western users far more power to decide our digital future, as well as the extent to which they shape our democratic and economic possibilities. Advertiser dollars are not guaranteed to today’s tech monopolies, as many of these companies have begun to see in recent quarters. And the decision makers are trying to champion a more diverse marketplace of ideas, businesses, and products.

The third part of the equation is us.

What is we want to? What would best meet our daily need for connection, and a rejuvenation of democratic practice through online collaboration?

And what are we willing to do or adopt to achieve this better goal?

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