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The future of Twitter

Alex Gunz speculates on what next for the platform in the wake of its takeover by Elon Musk.

There is no shortage of speculation over the future prospects for Twitter in the wake of its takeover by Elon Musk. But a simple principle called the ‘network lock-in effect’ suggests that it could soon reach a fork which will take it in one of two very different directions. In one it continues to succeed and thrive, but in the other it could die away. There is unlikely to be any middle road between the two. 

This principle says that nobody can really know which of these two futures is coming, least of all you, I, nor Elon Musk. This is because it will be decided not by corporate strategy moves, but by a feedback loop from the sum of hundreds of thousands of individual choices. 

If that is a little hard to visualise, think of a murmuration of starlings suddenly turning. None of the individual birds know when they will turn, but when they do, they all do it together.

Network lock-in principle

The lock-in principle says that the reason we see a small number of very big networks rather than many small ones has very little to do with how clever their founders were, or how good their engineers are. Instead, it is down to the far simpler reality that a network is only useful to us, as individuals, if everyone else is on it too. 

When email was first invented it was difficult to persuade people to use it because there were few other people to whom you could send a message, making it largely useless in practical terms. Now that everyone has an email address, it is difficult not to have one of your own because it is where so much communication happens.  

The reason I believe Twitter is so popular is not because of its 280-character limits or its trending topics. Rather, the reason is that if you want to find out what is happening in many areas of life (e.g. politics, sports, pop culture), it is where many influential people are pumping out their news and announcements, and where many others have congregated to discuss these things. 

Put simply, the reason everyone is on Twitter is because it’s where everyone else is too. It’s one huge, self-reinforcing feedback loop. So, if I were to abandon Twitter right now, it would mean cutting myself off from all of this information and discussion which would be a heavy cost.

Tipping point

The question is whether enough people end up moving to another platform that we reach a tipping point where this other place becomes where the action is. 

If this happens, Twitter will suddenly slow down and its remaining denizens will abandon it in droves. But if that tipping point doesn’t arrive then the alternative networks will be the ones struggling, and Twitter will remain the main game in town. Mastodon, for instance, has seen its membership rocket since Musk’s takeover, but to date it has not yet reached close to this tipping point. 

Losing a network lock-in advantage is difficult, but if Twitter becomes overrun enough by trolls to make it unpleasant for readers and advertisers alike, then it might lose it. Similarly, it could prove fatal if Musk follows up on his earlier plan to give extra clout to paid accounts. If we go to Twitter to follow interesting people but all we get are the musings of those who shelled out cash to be able to shout the loudest, then we will feel much less need to remain locked-in. 

The future

At the end of the day whether Twitter continues to prosper will not depend on any one person, but rather on whether the accumulated weight of individual defections ever reaches a critical mass to swing the party somewhere else. 

At the moment Twitter claims that its user base is growing faster than ever. But if it does start losing customers it will likely be somewhat sudden and irreversible as some other platform gains the network lock-in that Twitter presently holds. And once they have it, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Twitter to get it back.

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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