Peering Into Social Media’s Future, Don’t Expect a ‘Next Twitter,’ Professor Says

July 20, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

In early June, when the Central Virginia skies first turned smoky as a result of the Canadian wildfires, Charlottesville resident Kevin Driscoll had the natural urge to find out what was going on as soon as possible.

But Driscoll is also a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, with a finger on the pulse of the social media business. While Twitter was once his go-to app to find relevant public communication, the events of the previous seven months related to the platform gave him pause.

“Where should I go?” Driscoll said he asked himself. “Are my local meteorologists still active on Twitter? Are they posting anywhere else?

“We had come to think of Twitter as a reasonable place to go for information. But now that it’s unclear if Twitter is going to be around for much longer, we have a public communication problem.”

The chaos dates to late October, when billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk acquired Twitter and began his controversial overhaul of the product – highlighted by mass layoffs, free speech policy changes and charging users fees for verified accounts.

Musk said recently that Twitter has seen a 50% drop in advertising revenue.

A Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults, conducted over a week in March, reported that 60% of U.S. adult Twitter users have taken a break from the app for a period of “several weeks or more” over the past year.

Twitter’s future seemingly took another hit earlier this month when another social media network, Threads, was launched through Meta Platforms and owner Mark Zuckerberg, and gained 100 million users within five days.

Threads joins Mastodon and Bluesky as new threats to Twitter’s staying power as a social media giant.

UVA Today caught up with Driscoll, the author of “The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media,” to break it all down.

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Q. How would you sum up what’s taken place in the social media sector since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter? Has this been one of the more chaotic periods you can recall?

A. It’s been a period of both creativity and instability. I see the events of the last few months as willful destruction of the Twitter platform. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that changes over the past six months ran counter to the values of many long-time users.

But it’s important to remember that the platform was already in a state of decline. It had become an unstable, hostile place for many people and folks were exploring alternatives. Twitter’s golden era had already passed.

At the same time, however, the destruction of Twitter has stimulated new thinking about the future of social media. My optimistic view is that it has motivated a lot of people to try out something new. The proliferation of new apps and services is great. Now, we have working alternatives to consider – prototypes of the future. Instead of talking about what’s wrong with Twitter, we can talk about how Mastodon or Bluesky could be different.

Q. How can another social media platform take advantage of Twitter’s apparent decline and fill its void?

A. I think the error in how a lot of us think about this moment is to imagine that we’re looking for the next Twitter. And I just don’t think there will be a next Twitter.

Twitter developed at a unique moment in internet history. It was almost an accident. There was no game plan in 2006 or 2007 where someone gave a PowerPoint presentation like, “OK, we’re going to be the app where people live-tweet NBA games, find weather information, and watch heads of state do diplomacy.” From a million miles away, it seems totally incoherent.

So my hunch is that there is not going to be one single platform that serves all those purposes anymore. Those functions will get peeled off into systems that are better suited to those specific needs. And, ideally, these new systems will be linked together rather than walled off from one another.

Q. Are you already finding some of those functions in other apps?

A. Here’s an example. I belong to a professional organization called the Association of Internet Researchers, or AOIR. As you might expect, the AOIR membership is “extremely online” and there are several members who have been studying alternative social media for years. When Twitter started coming to pieces, my colleagues decided to form a Mastodon server for our community to use.

Today, there are just shy of 100 people active on the AOIR server. That might sound terribly small compared to a major commercial service like Twitter. But user numbers only tell part of the story. This server is operated, moderated and maintained by members of our community. (Full disclosure, I am one of the volunteer moderators.)

Decades of experience inform how this new space is being run. Only active members of AOIR can get an account. All users must agree to follow a code of conduct consistent with how we expect people to act at conferences or on the mailing list. It feels like a space that we own.

For now, I’m probably not going to go on there to live-tweet about the NBA Finals. It still feels like a workspace where I’m talking to other researchers. But because it’s there, I also don’t need to go to Twitter or Threads to talk about my work.

Q. Have you experimented with Bluesky? And what purposes could that serve in a new era of social media?

A. Yes, I’ve been playing with Bluesky, too. So far, Bluesky feels like more of the classic “weird” Twitter experience to me: real-time posts from strangers.

Bluesky is an experimental service that started as a Twitter spin-off. There are plans for Bluesky to grow into a network like Mastodon where anyone can run their own server but, for now, all of the users are together on one big platform.

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One clever thing about Bluesky is how they sort the posts that appear in your feed. On Mastodon, the timeline appears in chronological order, with the newest posts at the top. On Threads and Instagram, posts are sorted by an algorithm, but they won’t tell you how it works. On Bluesky, users customize their feeds by selecting from different ranking algorithms with names like “What’s Hot” and “Popular With Friends.” You can set up multiple timelines and swap from one to the next.

The promise of all this customization is that Bluesky users may be able to create and share their own sorting algorithms, to discuss and debate the merits of one approach over another. It would bring some transparency to these otherwise opaque media systems.

What intrigues me about the Bluesky feeds is the creativity. We’ve been doing social media the same way for more than 10 years. Surely, we’ve learned something in that time. What do we want from social media in the future?

Q. One unique feature about Threads is, once you’re signed up, you can inherit all of your existing Instagram followers. How important is that for the early success of Threads?

A. It’s certainly important if you measure success by numbers of users who sign up. The app prompts new users to import their contacts from Instagram which, in turn, prompts those Instagram users to sign up.

But counting users isn’t the only way to measure success. Platforms that sell ad space are excited about those numbers, but that isn’t how I would expect a community to measure success. They would want to know, “Are people sticking around? Who left? Are people posting interesting stuff? Are they happy here?”

Facebook is promoting how many millions of people signed up for Threads. And that’s cool. A whole lot of people signed up. But they made it so easy to sign up. It was two clicks. So that big number doesn’t tell me if the users are coming back, doesn’t tell me if they like it. In my view, headcount is a very thin measure of success.

In terms of the future of social media, one thing that has come out of my research is the need for better definitions of success. Merely convincing people to sign up or getting them to open the app is not enough.

Q. What are your overall impressions of Threads?

A. The promise of Threads is the same as the promise of Twitter and Facebook, which is an infinite scrolling feed. There will always be new posts and you’re never going to get to the end. If your friends aren’t posting very much, the platform is just going to throw posts at you by big brands and media companies and popular accounts.

For me, that strategy makes Threads seem rather bland. It feels like the platform is pulling me toward the mainstream and Mastodon is pulling me to the margins. At its best, Twitter felt like a mishmash of both. So Threads won’t be the “next Twitter” because maybe another Twitter just isn’t what we want.

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Andrew Ramspacher

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