Twitter Was An Awesome Idea But Never A Viable Business

Photo of blue bird on a branch.

Twitter was the best communications system ever invented, providing low-barrier-to-entry communications in real-time to people worldwide, creating self-organizing circles of common interests, allowing for easy discovery, and supporting an instant source of information. But, there was never a chance of becoming a big profitable business.

And yes, I deliberately used the past tense.

The idea, in retrospect, seems obvious, create a communications network where regular people could talk to others, find people with common interests, support text, images, and video, use hashtags to allow easy discovery, and have it all be free. But, of course, it was actually very radical as it did not displace anything existing.

The world has been using it for the past 16 or so years, and it has become an indispensable tool for business, media, government, and everyday people. So naturally, everyone sees it as something different (like the proverbial sightless people touching an elephant). For some, it's a raucous town square where everyone shouts to push some political angle; for some, it's a source of real-time news; for some, an opportunity to influence others (sometimes nefariously); but for many people, it's just a way to talk with people who share your interests, irrespective of where in the world they are. For me, it's building a circle of artists and art lovers who support my art.

There is no replacement for what Twitter has done in the world. Decentralized systems like Mastodon have little ability for global discovery (at the moment, anyway), Meta monetizes every pixel and letter to generate more revenue, TikTok is influencers making videos, Twitch is live video, and YouTube is long-form videos. Nothing is a replacement for Twitter until someone makes a new "TwitterLike."

Anyone could jump in and use Twitter without having to know anything. So the barrier to entry was almost zero. Discovery was easy; add a few useful hashtags, and anyone interested in what you had to say or show could follow you. APIs existed to let institutions and education research trends (both for good reasons and bad). Watching real-time news broadcasts by people was astounding; there was no need to wait for some news channel to pay attention.

I started posting my art every day in August 2021, and within six months, I had over 5,000 followers, mostly artists and people who like art, doing nothing more than posting new art with a few hashtags every day. I saw an average of 3,000 people view each post early in 2022. However, after that, Twitter stopped showing my content to most followers, so the average number of views dwindled to less than 300. After looking at the source code dump, it appeared I was following too many people, but recently reducing that count did nothing. Talking with people worldwide was so much fun; I could have never connected with so many people so quickly and cheaply.

Of course, that's the core issue; Twitter, like so many things since the internet became prevalent, did not cost anything. This is the worst thing that was "invented" along with the Web—that content should always be free. But, unfortunately, keeping it free meant you had to monetize your expenses and profit not by charging for it but by heavily investing in advertisements, selling anything you scraped from interactions, and altering your service to ensure continuous revenue.

If you look at other technologies, everyone pays. Cell phone service, internet service, video services (all the + services you can afford!), and even app subscriptions. But anything online has to be "free."

Since Twitter was a continuous stream of small content that never ended, no "pages" or gateways could monetize the service. Inserting ads brought in some money, and charging for certain things brought in a bit more. There was no easy way to monetize the stream of information since it was difficult to correlate, package, and sell to the highest bidder. Twitter could support the service and stay in business, but under most circumstances would have never grown to be a Meta or Alphabet and justify a significant valuation. I don't think Twitter is a great standalone business, like YouTube before Google purchased it. Big tech companies valuation seems to be based on future earning growth, but Twitter never really had that.

Now enter the Sandman, or rather Mr. Musk, who decided to pay an enormous sum for Twitter. Of course, it made no sense to anyone except possibly all the financial institutions who loaned him Billions to buy it. Now the result is destroying everything that made Twitter unique: ease of entry, ease of discovery, accessible research, recognizing who is real, and even some level of policing content. No more ways to communicate with people all over the world. No more real-time messaging of helpful information. No more research into what people are thinking about—no more attempts at keeping communications (however inconsistent it could be) reasonably decent.

It's not Twitter anymore. It's certainly not worth much to anyone now and becomes less so daily. But, like falling off a cliff, it only seems you are progressing.

The only solution is to start over, which a few people are doing, including Bluesky. It's hard to say if you can recreate the fantastic parts of Twitter. It's even more challenging to tell if it still could be a viable business idea. I always thought it would be best if a "TwitterLike" were owned by someone with deep pockets who had no interest in giant profitability for the service but ensured it could pay for itself. But is there such a corporation? Another option is to go the Wikipedia route, which supports itself from contributions (which can be irritating sometimes but generally benign).

Twitter as a concept needs to exist; it's too ingrained in modern life, and despite all the negatives is still a valuable idea. Can you fix the negatives without ruining the good parts? Can you support the service at scale without destroying it with ads and rampant monetization?

I hope so; I am sad that I have lost 5,700 friends that I can no longer communicate with, and other than this blog, I have no influence anywhere now. I'd love to work with someone like Bluesky, but I doubt they need or are interested in some random retired programmer with much product experience.

When Facebook was just Facebook, I calculated that they made around $1 for each subscriber per month. So if I could have built a service just supporting my friends and family and get people to chip in $1 a month, I'd make just as much as Facebook without massive investment in ad tech and monetization, but never get rich, of course!

Hopefully, someone will build a successor to Twitter with all of the benefits with fewer drawbacks, and we can all go back to communicating again.