We’re over three months out from the launch of Threads, Meta’s purported Twitter – I mean, X – killer. And as MIT Technology Review contributor Katie Notopoulos so aptly put it, “there’s something in the air—a vibe shift, a sense that things are about to change.”
If you work at an agency, you’re starting to see Threads icons appear in social playbooks and briefs. You’re starting to hear clients refer (with trepidation) to their work on X, rather than Twitter and looking ahead to 2024 more and more plans are stripping the platform formerly known as Twitter out completely. While Threads was initially met with enthusiasm from users and brands alike, the number of daily active users have plummeted since. The posters just aren’t drawn to the app and it feels like a mall of brands simply talking to one another. The itch former Twitter mainstays are looking to scratch hasn’t been successfully satiated by any of the Twitter alts that have emerged. But X has grown increasingly untenable for both users and brands as the culture of the platform descends deeper into toxicity and the rumors of a forthcoming paywall for all gain steam. Is the problem that nothing can replicate the magic that Twitter once was? Or is it just not the right time yet?
We’re in a moment of mass platform experimentation – and have been for the past couple of years. Who could forget the Clubhouse craze that seized marketers and consumers alike in early 2021? Or the launch of BeReal last year? But nothing seems to quite stick. BeReal was down by over half of their daily active users one year after its height. You don’t even hear people mention Clubhouse anymore. My theory? The right time hasn’t hit.
Think of when the most formative platforms first emerged. MySpace and Facebook broke onto the scene in the early aughts, shaping how younger Gen Xers and elder millennials engaged with the Internet. Then, the trifecta of Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram emerged around 2010, a formative moment for younger millennials. Then, finally, TikTok went mainstream in 2020 after evolving from its predecessor Music.ly two years earlier; arguably the most dominant platform at the moment, it continues to shape how Gen Z consumes content, expresses humor, engages with and defines culture.
With this context in mind, the next big platform has to coincide with Gen Alpha’s coming of age. Knowing the eldest members of that generation turn 13 this year, we still may have a ways to go as their millennial parents are far more wary of social media than their Gen X or Boomer parent predecessors. In the meantime, Twitter stalwarts have taken a few different approaches, from Tumblr returns to LinkedIn activity spikes to riding out X until the bitter end. But arguably the most predominant approach? Letting TikTok become their new main platform. TikTok has finally topped out over 1.1 billion monthly active users, meanwhile X is down over double X’s reported 450 million monthly active users. So, is TikTok the new Twitter until a Gen Alpha alternative emerges?
While Gen Z grew up on FaceTime, millennials spent their teen years texting, doing anything to avoid talking on the phone. Notably, early Twitter users will remember when you could tweet via text; Twitter was characterized by its similarity to the means through which millennials preferred to communicate. This approach captured a kind of magic, taking the primary means through which the young generation of the moment communicated and making social networking an extension of that. Meanwhile, shooting iPhone videos in service of creating content marked only a small departure for Gen Z, a generation of iPad babies raised on video communication.
Twitter and TikTok might seem fundamentally different, with one rooted in the written word and the other capitalizing on short form video, one tied to Gen Z and the other more distinctively millennial. But, beyond that surface-level form of expression, the two platforms have several similarities. Twitter created a space where any tweet could go viral if it hit at the right moment and reached the right signal boosters at a critical time. TikTok has taken an analogous blend of timeliness, personality, and freedom of expression — and simply projected it through a different form of media.
The very nature of TikTok has created a bottleneck when it comes to the exposition of a new app. By blurring the line between social media and entertainment, it has established a chokehold on time spent. According to The DCDX Gen Z Screen Time Report, social media users spent nearly six hours a week for an average user, almost 12 hours a week for an above average user and even higher for super users, leaving little white space for anything else. The algorithm of it all also creates yet another roadblock for challengers. The TikTok experience stretches beyond connections, predicated on a feed that moves with its users’ evolving interests.
But even with TikTok’s stronghold on time spent, people are still missing the sense of Twitter as the internet’s town square. It’s true, even more than reddit — Twitter was the platform where people came together to discuss the proverbial “what’s happening,” often what was happening occurred off-platform but they came to Twitter to unpack. Without that central watering hole to organize around, we’re left with social ghost towns filled with ghost watchers. Content is still going viral, but the virality is getting harder to track with the rise in dark virality powered by de-platformed group chats. So, while TikTok isn’t going anywhere, the proliferation of culture powered by the platform is getting harder to track and attribute.
Gen Alpha will inevitably dismantle the building blocks that built TikTok in the same way that Gen Z relegated GIFs to Slack and family group chats. The fate of cringe will come for Gen Z too, as the primordial Gen Alpha memes have foretold, and with it will come a new TikTok. But, in the meantime, perhaps we should embrace the dispersed social media landscape emerging around us as Twitter goes the way of MySpace.